Spireas are mainstays of the shrub world, thanks to their gorgeous blooms and steadfast demeanor
Timing is everything with Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica). The time is now — as in no later than early March for a hard pruning — for this tough, summer-flowering shrub that blooms on new wood. Yet, pruning can be a sticking point, growers and breeders say, when educating consumers about a plant that has been a steadfast purchase by both retail and wholesale customers for more than a century.
Japanese spirea are a “steady Eddie” of the landscape, said Debbie Lonnee, product development manager at Bailey Nurseries (St. Paul, Minnesota). It’s also the second best-selling flowering shrub at Spring Meadow Nursery (Grand Haven, Michigan), according to Judson LeCompte, product development assistant manager.
With new introductions, growers are working to offer a stronger selection of plants to meet trends for small- to medium-sized shrubs that provide seasons-long interest with extended bloom and leaf color.
“Consumers like Japanese spirea because they are very tough, easy to grow, take heavy soil, have good urban resistance, and have a gorgeous floral display,” LeCompte said. They also show deer and rabbit resistance and other attributes of flowering plants, such as butterfly friendly.
Care and propagation
Georgia Clay, new plants manager at Monrovia (Dayton, Oregon), believes that siting them properly helps the plants stay healthy and display their best. Japanese spirea are shade-tolerant, but some of the yellow-leaf varieties will lose their chartreuse color if placed in too deep shade or too harsh sun. They don’t tolerate soil that is too dry or too wet.
Because they are in the rose family, Japanese spirea can experience some of the same issues. Cultural care — for instance, locating in the sun, removing any spotty foliage and watering the base rather than the leaves of the plants — greatly increases plant health. “Spirea japonica don’t have a lot of huge landscape issues,” Clay said. “Plus, new breeds can offer a reblooming feature, which adds to the attractiveness of the extremely low-maintenance shrub that can be placed anywhere,” she said.
To the growers’ benefit, Japanese spirea can be sold widespread in the U.S., in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9 — depending on the cultivar and how fast it takes to produce a saleable plant.
“If you have the right soil amendment in your premix product, I can take a direct cutting at the right time of year, and it will be rooted out July and August,” said grower and landscaper Harold Miller of Harold M. Miller Landscape Nursery (Jefferson, Oregon). “I direct-root them in a can, and don’t put them in a propagation bed.”
Miller puts Japanese spirea cuttings directly into 1-gallon pots with potting soil containing sharp sand, a method he has used for 50 years. He discovered it after a worker put bundles 3 to 4 inches across with a rubber band directly in sawdust. They self-propagated.
“I’ve used sharp sand ever since,” he said. “The sharp pieces of sand split the new pieces of root, and instead of one root, you’ve got two to five new pieces of root. When you grab that handful of potting soil, and it’s nice and smooth, it’s no good.”
As soon as he gets new growth with 10 to 12 buds, 4–5 inches tall, he cuts them to 3–4 inches. As the plants get bigger, in 2–5 gallons, he trims them a few more times.
“Over time, it yields a solid mass of roots,” he said. The process creates a nice and bushy plant.
Once to size, Miller likes to place Japanese spirea in the landscape in groups of three or five of the same variety. Landscapers use them in swaths, in mass plantings, or as short, informal hedges. Although most Japanese spirea grow 2–3 feet, there is variation in size at maturity depending on area of the country they are grown in.
‘Little Princess’ (Spiraea japonica ‘Little Princess’), Magic Carpet™ (S. japonica ‘Walbuma’), ‘Goldmound’ (S. japonica ‘Goldmound’) and ‘Goldflame’ (S. japonica ‘Goldflame’) are among the most popular Japanese spirea on the market.
‘Little Princess’ (2–3 feet tall by 2–3 feet wide, Zones 4–9) is one of the most compact Japanese spirea, according to LeCompte. With delicate, lacey rose-pink flowers atop mint-green foliage, it is among Miller’s favorite spirea for its dense, naturally mounding habit and its longevity in the garden when well-maintained.
“Normally you see a spirea in a landscape, and it looks good for two to three years, and then it gets shabbier and is yanked out,” Miller said. Spirea need pruning, he said, which resets the plant. “But you can’t let it get leggy, and then cut it back.”
The compact Magic Carpet (1–2 feet tall by 2–3 feet wide, Zones 3–8) in containers is the number-one selling Japanese spirea at Bailey Nurseries, according to Lonnee and other nurseries as well. It has showy new red growth that matures to greenish-gold and turns rich russet in fall.
“It has good emerging color and complements the first set of flowers, and looks good all season long,” Lonnee said. Prune it down to 6–12 inches, and it will bloom all summer, she said.
After ‘Magic Carpet’, ‘Goldmound’ (2–3 feet tall by 2–4 feet wide, Zones 4–8) is a close second best-seller at Bailey and ‘Little Princess’ is third. ‘Goldmound’ has a compact mounding habit with bright yellow-gold foliage in spring that fades to a yellowish-green in summer, topped with pink blooms, and yellowish-orange foliage in fall.
Lonnee claims Landscapers know ‘Goldmound’, and in the Midwest they are especially ordering Dakota Goldcharm® spirea (S. japonica ‘Mertyann’, 15–18 inches high by 2–3 feet wide, Zones 3–8). It is an extreme dwarf variety introduced by North Dakota State University that starts with light bronze leaves in spring turning yellowish-gold by summer and russet in fall.
Miller sells many ‘Froebel’ (S. japonica ‘Froebelii’, 3–4 feet tall by 3–4 feet wide, Zones 4–9), which has better heat and drought tolerance and reaches a larger size than other S. japonica. Leaves emerge a deep purple and turn dark into maturity.
Where a spring flower is especially important, Miller uses ‘Neon Flash’ (S. japonica ‘Neon Flash’, 2–3 feet tall by 3–4 feet wide, Zones 4–8), a plant he said should be used more often. The flowers are a deep pink, nearly red, with long lasting and plentiful blooms. They contrast with the burgundy-red new growth in spring that matures to deep green and again turns color in fall.
When one color is just not enough, Miller turns to ‘Shirobana’ (S. japonica ‘Shirobana’, 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide, Zones 3–8), sometimes referred to as ‘Shirobana Tricolor’, for the variations of pink, white and reddish flower clusters that dot the plant throughout summer. The leaf colors are just as varied in fall, with hues of red, orange and burgundy foliage lighting up the plant.
For its larger size and flat-topped pink flowers that hold longer, Miller uses ‘Anthony Waterer’ (S. japonica ‘Anthony Waterer’, 3–5 feet tall by 3–5 feet wide, Zones 4–9), introduced more than a 100 years ago in 1875, and yet still a valued plant. New foliage emerges red-purple in spring, matures to green by summer and turns reddish in fall.
Clay believes name recognition always plays a part in sales, especially with plants landscapers have used before. However, Monrovia is seeing some replacing of the older varieties when new ones come along that have better attributes.
Monrovia introduced in 2017 Lil’ Flirt (S. japonica ‘SMSJMLA’ PP30591, 2½ feet tall by 2½ feet wide, Zones 4–9), which has burgundy growth in spring like ‘Anthony Waterer’, and deep pink flowers, but is half the size, has a more tight, refined habit, making it a little easier to care for, and it tolerates sun without burning. Plus, it reblooms.
“The flower is a really deep pink and it can bloom spring through fall,” Clay said, “with three flushes in northern climates.”
Lil Sizzle (S. japonica ‘SMSJMLG’ PP30709, 2½ feet tall by 2½ 5 feet wide, Zones 4–9) was introduced at the same time as ‘Lil’ Flirt’, a counterpart with a similar form but with bright orange leaves in spring that age into yellow foliage. Clay said they while yellow foliage spirea often burn in the sun, ‘Lil’ Sizzle’ holds up, without succumbing, making it an improvement.
A year later, in 2018, Monrovia introduced Walberton’s® Plumtastic Spirea (S. japonica ‘Walplum’, 16–24 inches tall by 16–24 inches wide, Zones 4–9) because it offered something a new introduction should — it does something better. The first flushes of Plumtastic emerge in spring a plum color that are glossy and fresh, and then colorful buds open to cerise-colored flowers that contrast with the green summer foliage that turns burgundy in fall.
As it is a repeat bloomer, Clay says it is one of her favorite crops to visit in the fields.
For a species that leans toward pink, pink-hued and even nearly red blooms, Yeti™ (S. japonica ‘Conspiyet’, 2–3 feet tall by 3 feet wide, Zones 4–9) is an uncommon addition, with “beautiful crisp white flowers that are self-cleaning,” Clay said. “It’s a really good plant that sometimes gets overlooked.”At Bailey, one of the last two S. japonica it added is new to the catalog this year: First Editions® Little Spark® (S. japonica ‘Minspil04’ PP30819, 18–24 inches tall by 18–30 inches wide, Zones 3–8). This introduction marks the beginning of the nursery phasing out ‘Goldflame’ (S. japonica ‘Goldflame’) because of evidence it reverts to a variegated habit, according to Lonnee.
Little Spark, developed by Minier Nursery (France), holds up to full sun with orange new growth and pink flowers that hang just above the yellow summer foliage and reappear in late summer if sheared after the first flush.
The other more recent addition to the Bailey catalog, Double Play® Candy Corn® (S. japonica ‘NCSX1’ PP28313, 18–24 inches tall by 18–30 inches wide, Zones 4–7) has new growth that emerges bright orange-red, continues to emerge orange all season and matures to yellow. LeCompte describes the blooms as a dark purple, and because the plant is sterile, there is no weediness. ‘Candy Corn’ is the number-one seller at Spring Meadow as it makes a perfect round spring plant with interest that continues into fall.
“It’s a beautiful plant with some interesting coloration,” Lonnee said. With some production challenges growing in containers, Bailey may or may not continue with it. “Most spiraea are easy to grow,” she said. “This one is just sensitive in containers to over and under watering and does not root out as some of the others.”
Candy Corn is a Proven Winners® selection earning a patent in 2017, and one of two in the Double Play series developed by Thomas Ranney of North Carolina State University. The other is Double Play® Doozie® (S. japonica ‘NCSX2’ PP30953, 2–3 feet tall by 2–3 feet wide, Zones 3–8), a sterile variety patented in 2018. “It is a non-stop flowering machine with deep red new growth in spring that ages to dark green,” LeCompte said. The flowers are purple, reblooming from early summer through frost, with no dead-heading necessary.
The Double Play series was introduced in 2009 when Spring Meadow unveiled Double Play® Artisan® (S. japonica ‘Galen’) and Double Play® Gold (S. japonica ‘Yan’). Spring Meadow still grows the aforementioned top-selling classic Japanese spirea that have been on the market for more than 20 years because they are good garden plants. Yet, the company continues to look for improvements such as brighter and longer-lasting flowers that don’t fade, increased disease and mildew resistance, sterility to decrease weediness and more dynamic spring foliage.
“Better spring flushes means there is less pressure to have blooms on the plants for better early sales,” LeCompte said.
Double Play® Big Bang® (S. japonica ‘Tracy’, 2–3 feet tall by 2–3 feet wide, Zones 3–8), a 2020 winner of the KVBC-Award Gold Medal awarded by the Royal Boskoop Horticultural Society trials committee is an example of better new growth.
“It flushes in red and yellow and ages to a nice chartreuse,” LeCompte said. The “bang” is also in the pink flowers, which are exceptionally large.
Double Play® Gold (18–24 inches tall by 16–24 inches high, Zones 3–8) erupts in spring with bright golden foliage that holds all season and is topped with vibrant hot pink summer flowers. LeCompte pairs it with dark-foliaged plants like Jazz Hands Variegated® loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense ‘Irodori’ USPP 27,713), crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.) and dark hollies (Ilex spp.).
In the trial garden, LeCompte claims every visitor stopped in their tracks when coming across Double Play® Painted Lady (S. japonica ‘Minspi’, 24–36 inches tall by 24–36 inches wide, Zones 4–9). The cream and yellow variegation that looks almost painted on.
“It’s a little bit of a slower grower, but it’s worth it for the foliage alone,” he said.
Double Play® Pink (S. japonica ‘SMNSJMFP’, 24–36 inches tall by 24–36 inches wide, Zones 3–8) has a dark red new flush that ages to green, but is known more for its massive amounts of vibrant pink flowers.
Also, Double Play® Red (S. japonica ‘SMNSJMFR’, 24–36 inches tall by 24–36 inches wide, Zones 3–8) is a breakthrough, with the closest red of any spirea, according to LeCompte. Its showy dark burgundy foliage in spring later turns to green.
With a solid selection of proven and newer varieties to choose from, we can expect the small to medium-sized shrubs of Japanese spirea to be best-sellers and hardy additions to gardens and landscapes for at least another century.
Tracy Ilene Miller is a freelance writer and editor who covers several topics, including gardening. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Where to find Japanese spireas
Oregon is a great place to buy plants. Nursery Guide is a great place to find them. Simply use our powerful search feature to locate the plants you need and the wholesale growers who offer them. If you are having trouble with your search, try part of the botanical name or common name, or call us at 503-682-5089 for assistance.
NurseryGuide.com currently has growers listing many different types of Japanese spireas, including 10 that are featured in this article. There are also Vanhoutte spireas, Douglas spireas and others as well. This is just a sampling of what you can find on the site with your plant search:
- Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’
- Spiraea japonica ‘Little Princess’
- Spiraea japonica ‘Magic Carpet’
- Spiraea japonica ‘Anthony Waterer’
- Spiraea japonica ‘Neon Flash’
- Spiraea japonica ‘Shirobana’
- Spiraea japonica Double Play Red
- Spiraea japonica Froebelii
- Spiraea japonica Double Play Gold
- Spiraea japonica Dakota Goldcharm
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If you grow any spirea and it is not seen here, you can still list it in the Nursery Guide. If it is not in our database, we will add it, including cultural information, description, photos and more. Log in to get started. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help.