June 21st, 2011
Cathy Neustadt and I were meandering through her sumptuous Brookfield garden several years ago, admiring the color and variety of plants, when a small chartreuse seedling rising out the mulch caught my eye. “Oh,” Cathy said, “Those darn things.” The plant wisp was a tiny offspring of a nearby flamboyant ‘Goldflame’ spirea and was about to be tossed into the compost pile. “May I have it?” I asked. “Of course” came the generous reply.
At the time I didn’t know diddly-squat about spirea, but the mama shrub looked pretty good, so I took that baby home and planted it directly outside my front door, where it proceeded to grow and thrive. Two Junes later, it threw out an abundance of pretty pink clusters at the tips of its lime-green leaves and began its career of annually rewarding me for saving its life.
Spirea, also known as Meadowsweet, is native to the northern hemisphere, (and therefore valuable to bees and other wildlife) where American Indian and other cultures have long recognized its analgesic and anti-inflammatory qualities. In fact, the word “aspirin” derives in part from the word “spirea”. But we gardeners nurture this deciduous shrub for its beauty. A rock-hardy member of the rose family, there are two major types; those that bloom in May and those that bloom in June.
Would spring be as beautiful in New England without Bridal Veil spirea? Those aptly-named, old-fashioned arching shrubs, which can grow some 6 to 10 feet tall and wide, bear tiny white nosegays of flowers all along their branches. Our grandparents grew Bridal Veil, and its charm has never worn off, though there are new cultivars such as ‘Plena’ and ‘Snowmound’ which offer such attributes as double blooms and vibrant fall foliage. Space these shrubs 5 to 10 feet apart, and since they bloom on last year’s wood, prune for shape immediately after flowering. As the plant ages, also consider removing woody, older canes.
The smaller, mound-shaped spirea are finishing their first flush right about now, but will re-bloom (although more sparsely) if deadheaded or pruned hard after this go-round. While Bridal Veil is best used as a specimen or informal hedge, these summer sweeties go well in foundation plantings and perennial borders. “Goldmound’ and ‘Goldflame’ both offer chartreuse leaves and pink blossoms while the old favorite, ‘Anthony Waterer’, in the trade since 1850, is noted for its carmine flowers. .
An easy plant once established, spirea doesn’t grouse or grumble at benign neglect. It wants only full sun, average soil and water, and a simple scattering of fertilizer in spring. Deer leave it alone, but aphids can visit upon occasion. If your shrubs appear less than stellar, examine closely for a tiny sucking plague, and if indicated, spray with insecticidal soap.
Look for potted spirea at local nurseries, but if you’re willing to grow a spirea sprout, follow my lead and beg a seedling from a gardening buddy. Passalong plants, and the associated memories, are the best kind.