PLANT OF THE WEEK #44: Itea ilicifolia

First, let’s establish that we at The Gardenist don’t deliberately choose impossible-to-source plants for our Plant of the Week.  It may appear that way.  But name me an interesting plant that isn’t getting harder to find?

Then following that unapologetic but probably ineffective attempt to avert criticism by acknowledging the problem before you can point it out, on to this week’s feature plant – Itea ilicifolia.

Itea ilicifolia is a medium sized evergreen shrub that bears, in the height of summer, long catkin-like racemes of honey-scented greenish flowers.  If that doesn’t immediately arouse your interest (which it should, as there aren’t that many really interesting medium sized evergreen shrubs, and even less that flower in mid summer, and still fewer with scent), then I should add that these flower racemes hang all over the plant so that its glossy, mid-green holly-like foliage looks like it’s draped with pendulous decorations, with the weighty vertical emphasis of foot-long strings of beads from a Christmas tree.  It’s a perfect design combination of billowing, amorphous outline scattered with vertical lines as precise as a plumb-bob.

I’ve trawled through my migraine-inducing photo library looking for a full pic, and find that I don’t have one.  So a bit of homework.  Do a Google search for images.  You’ll want one.

I’d only seen plants in the UK at about 1.5-1.8 metres, so specified a couple of Itea ilicifolia for a moderate sized garden bed on the south side of a house about 20 years ago. I revisited a few years later to find them nearly up at the eaves.  I can’t imagine that they’d get that big in a more exposed spot.  I’ve seen so few adult specimens that I’m guessing a bit about exactly what conditions they like.  There’s not a lot of info available on the internet or in reference books, but it looks like their preference is for a reasonable amount of water, in a somewhat sun-and-wind sheltered spot – probably the kind of spot you’d put a rhododendron.  That’s why mine, purchased at a Friends of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens sale about six years ago, is still in a pot, looking for a home.  I don’t have such a spot, but can’t bring myself to get rid of the thing.

Christopher Lloyd would always pick a vase of flowers for the rooms of friends coming to stay – this of Itea ilicifolia for a friend of mine, staying in the night nursery

This may go down in our short history as the least informative of all Plant of the Week features, but given that our main aim is not so much to inform you as to nurture your curiosity, your acquisitiveness, and your desire to contribute to the collective wisdom, I consider my job done.

Discussion

  1. 😳 looks like something from the triffids

  2. The most beautiful, descriptive piece I’ve ever read on this plant.
    My plant has been with me over here in the U.K. for at least 15 years and has never grown taller than 1 M tall. Might just be that it lived in a pot for many years while I was trying to figure out where best to place it! It got too round in the girth to live against the east wall of our barn. The granite walls didn’t give enough second hand warmth to protect from those sharp easterlies, or sun on frozen foliage/stems. It’s now in the ground, too near the base of a, getting larger, Cercidiphyllum j. So not ideal but it’s healthy, flowers wonderfully and managing to cope with Dartmoor winters. Day time temp atm…2 C. with light snow.
    Glad our dear country is having an easier summer. Enjoy the planting.
    PS. Absolutely loved your video talk with Noel Kingsbury and Annie Guilfoil.
    You do Australia proud Michael.

  3. Just gorgeous. I have always loved the description of this plant but have never seen one in the flesh a it were.,let alone one for sale or listed anywhere in 30+years. Lucky you…I may have the perfect spot…

    1. Just saw the best one ever on a really dodgy TV show – a Stan series called ‘The Drowning’. It would have been a total waste of three hours of our lives but for 1. the occasional glimpse of this incredible Itea in the garden scenes, and 2. The biggest family laugh we’ve ever shared, after it was finished and we were all so baffled by the implausibility of the storyline that we looked up reviews, and all cried with laughter as we read them out.

  4. Like you I was inspired to plant one during my week working in the garden at Great Dixter many years ago. It has been pretty slow growing and usually looks like it needs a good feed. Not full sun and protected from wind in good but clay based soil. Just spent much of yesterday weeding the wandering jew from under and through it. But seem to recall the one at Dixter, beside those famous Lutyens steps, looked a big tangled! I also grow several itea virginicus (?) which are smaller and more colourful in autumn but sucker madly.

  5. Oh it’s lovely in that vase, wherever you have it in the pot it must be ok to have kept it so long….finally after 35 years of the less than fantastic Bendigo weather I have a few little spots not to shelter some of the plants I once was never able to grow…..even if no one else sees them, I do..
    La Niña hasn’t delivered too much rain yet at least the garden isn’t just hanging on in February like it usually does, however I have noticed my gleditsias might think it’s autumn.

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