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Mystery Plant: A look at ‘Virginia willow’

Today’s Mystery Plant is “Virginia Willow” or “Tassel-white,” Itea virginica.
Today’s Mystery Plant is “Virginia Willow” or “Tassel-white,” Itea virginica. Special to The Herald-Sun

It’s one of those plants that give off a really memorable aroma: a sweet, clinging aroma that hangs in the still air of a shaded magical woodland, letting us know that spring is almost over, with summer ready to roll in.

This common shrub can be found in damp places, most of the time, places like pond margins, rocky creek banks, and shaded slopes or bluffs. Depending on where you live, you might see Virginia willow, also commonly known as Tassel-white (Itea virginica) growing together with horse-sugar (Symplocos tinctoria), red bay (Persea palustris), sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana), ti-ti (Cyrilla racemiflora), as well as a variety of ferns.

It is pretty common from New Jersey to Texas, and including almost all of Florida (not so much south Florida). It’s a good example of what one might call a “slender shrub”, as it doesn’t really ever attain tree size. The leaves are not so memorable to me. They are sort of oval and pointy, with a scattering of short hairs on the surfaces and margins. They tend to stay on the branches longer than most of the other deciduous shrubs, eventually falling The bark is smooth and dark.

But the flowers!

Flowers are small, and won’t be winning many beauty contests. They are produced on new growth, along a distinctive stalk about 4 to 5 inches long, spiraled tightly around this axis, and each flower with its own little stalk. (Botanists like to call this kind of inflorescence a “raceme”.)

Each flower has 5 tiny sepals at the bottom, and then 5 white narrowly strap-shaped petals, about ¼” long, arising from between the sepals. Then there will be 5 little stamens (lots of 5s in today’s episode…) surrounding the single pistil in the center of the flower. The pistil has two small styles sticking out of the flower.

Now, these flowers at the height of their blooming produce lots of nectar and pollen, and as you might expect, are really popular with the bees. Frequently a plant in heavy bloom will have dozens of racemes, sometimes drooping. But it’s the fragrance of these flowers all together that really sets this plant off. To me it’s a sort of candy fragrance … sort of a creamy, sugary, wintergreen scent.

You’ll need to have a field trip in a local area and look for this plant … and enjoy its beauty and fragrance.

After the flowers have done their thing, the racemes get a little bit tattered looking, but the pistil of each flower will then be forming a small capsule, shaped like a skinny football, which will contain a few seeds. Later in the summer the capsules will break open, allowing the seeds out.

I really enjoy seeing this plant, and of course when it’s in bloom, it resembles nothing else (well, maybe ti-ti), which makes it easy for beginners to identify. I’ve seen it grown in cultivation a few times, and it apparently has no problems in cultivation. Maybe you should consider growing it yourself.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, S.C. 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit herbarium.biol.sc.edu, call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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