Sunday, June 29, 2014

Our Own Spireas

In my early gardening days I knew about a shrub or two called spirea. There was the old-fashioned cascading Vanhoutte one called bridal-something and a skinny white one that grew on the side of the road. And there was also the multi-colored ‘Anthony Waterer’ one that I bought for our yard. None of those are native. Since then I’ve learned that the spelling of the scientific name for spirea confuses your brain (it is Spiraea) and that we have several nice native species.
Spiraea tomentosa

The first one I met was a pink one that reminds me of cathedral spires. The common name for it is steeplebush (hopefully named after church steeples) and the scientific name is Spiraea tomentosa. The epithet tomentosa refers to the wooly hairs found on young twigs and the underside of the leaves. My good friend Sheri introduced me to this little shrub and I planted it in the moist area near the front porch where it has quietly bloomed in June ever since.

The second one I met was completely different. Virginia meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana) has white flowers arranged not in a panicle like steeplebush but in a flat corymb. Rare in the wild, perhaps due to habitat loss, and endemic to the Southern Appalachians, it apparently grows pretty well in cultivation. This plant was also given to me by a friend, James. If the deer would just leave it alone then one day I could have some to share! It also blooms in June.

Spiraea virginiana

The third native species that I acquired came by way of a purchase at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference last year. It was highly recommended (and blooming quite prettily in panicles of white) so it came home with me. Spiraea alba var. latifolia is commonly known as white meadowsweet and boasts a longer bloom time than Virginia meadowsweet (up to two months). Last year it bloomed for a long time, entertaining many a bee and beetle.

Spiraea alba var. latifolia
I always evaluate my plants according to more than just beauty. How do these shrubs help wildlife around me? I have been very surprised to note that the pink steeplebush doesn’t attract much attention. I pass it multiple times a day - in one week of close watching, the critters on it have been one tiny syrphid fly and a predatory bug. 

The two white species have been very popular with a variety of bugs. Since the flowers are very small, it seems natural that smaller bugs would enjoy them. I have observed small bumblebees (Bombus impatiens), tiny sweat bees, several species of longhorn beetles, and syrphid flies.

What attracts bugs also attracts birds. One morning I watched a pair of cardinals flit from plant to plant, plucking off insects as they went. Some poor beetle on the top of the S. latifolia bloom was a choice morsel for the female.

If you just have room for just one of these lovely native shrubs, I’d recommend S. latifolia (also known as S. alba var. latifolia). You may also come across S. alba. Be prepared to give some away. A few seedlings have popped up and I’ll be potting them up for friends and future plant sales this fall. Never a bad thing to have extras, I think.


  1. Love it and have been meaning to see if our local native nursery carries it. Does it need moist soil? Acidic? Thanks.

  2. They all like moist soil, Gail, although I think S. latifolia probably is the most tolerant of drier conditions (but not too dry). Which of the 3 are you most interested in?

    1. The one that is more tolerant of dry! Although, S tomentosa is lovely, it requires way more moisture than this garden can give it.