Itea ilicifolia “holly-leaved sweet spire”: a shrub for all seasons

As spring progresses I thought I would profile a plant seldom seen but definitely worth considering,  Itea ilicifolia also called “Holly-leaved sweet spire”.16_08_07_3126Itea belongs to the Grossulariaceae to which Escallonia and Ribes also belong. There are fifteen species of Itea – fourteen from East Asia and one deciduous species from North America – Itea virginica. They are useful shade loving shrubs or small trees.


Itea on 7th August

Itea ilicifolia as its name suggests has holly-like leaves. They are dark glossy green. The flowers are produced in abundance in narrow, pendulous, catkin-like racemes, up to 12″ (30cm) long. The flowers are tiny and densely packed; greenish-white in colour; and fragrant – a hint of honey scent. Flowering starts in mid summer and will continue well into autumn.


Itea on July 16th prior to flowering

Itea ilicifolia was introduced by Augustine Henry from Yichang on the Yangtze in central China, in a package to Lord Kesteven who flowered it first in 1895. Bean mentions that the earlier introductions needed wall shelter at Kew. Whether more recent acquisitions such as the Ernest Wilson’s collection, are from a higher altitude, or whether global warming is being demonstrated here, as Itea ilicifolia is becoming a plant more of borders than needing wall protection nowadays. Wall shelter is nevertheless advised in colder and/or exposed situations in eastern counties. 16_08_07_3121Rather lax in habit, Itea ilicifolia is most often grown and trained against a wall where the reflected heat encourages more flowers and better growth, although in warmer parts of the U.K., Itea ilicifolia grows to be a striking standalone plant.


Itea on 25th January 2017

Summer cuttings of the current years shoots can be taken about July or early August and placed in a sandy open compost in a cool frame – minimum 5° (40°F), damp, and in a well lit atmosphere, should root overwinter. It is widely available from nurseries.

An alternative would be Garrya elliptica the silk tassel bush17_01_25_4682There is no doubt that Garrya can make a striking small bush and also has similar tassels.17_01_25_4683However when grown against a wall and requiring pruning to shape I fine the tassels are considerably reduced in numbers.17_01_25_4684Furthermore the leaves are not as clean and glossy. The main advantage of Garrya elliptica over Itea ilicifolia is that it will cope with north facing walls.


19 thoughts on “Itea ilicifolia “holly-leaved sweet spire”: a shrub for all seasons

  1. A wonderful plant focus. I love that pergola corner and always admire your Itea. Six Acre nursery has one plant left. I’m going to run round there later and treat myself. Thanks for sharing your insights and photos Steve.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love, Itea ilicifolia although I have found it very slow growing compared to the Garrya a great idea to profile both shrub especially as to the untrained eye they would look very similar. New follower going to enjoy reading your upcoming posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks. I guess it depends where you want to grow it. In a warm situation it seems to grow plenty whereas Garrya may become too much. In the end as always it is right plant in the right location.


  4. You have a beautiful specimen of lovely Itea. There is a beauty on the terrace at Great Dixter. Mine is very small, I can’ t wait for it to grow and get fragrant tassels. Garrya is a good choice too, it is a shame that really cold weather turns the foliage brown, mine is looking a bit sorry for itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Garden Bloggers’ Foliage Day – April 2017 | Glebe House Garden

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