Spirea is one of the most popular and versatile flowering shrubs you can add to your garden. Many varieties have attractive foliage as well as flowers, providing interest for most of the growing season.
Easy to care for, spirea is a great plant for beginner and expert gardeners alike. They can be grown in many different climates and have many different landscaping uses.
Here’s a guide on how to grow and care for spirea, including the top varieties to try and troubleshooting tips.
All About Spirea
Spirea (Spiraea sp.) is a deciduous shrub that’s native to many regions in the Northern Hemisphere, including Japan and China. They belong to the rose family (Rosaceae), although there isn’t much resemblance.
Depending on the species and cultivar, spirea plants can grow anywhere from 1-8 feet tall. Most cultivars fall in the 2-4 foot range with some dwarf varieties topping out at just 1 foot tall.
Along with attractive, bushy foliage, spirea blooms with gorgeous white, pink, rose, red, or purple flowers. The bloom time depends on cultivar. Some are spring-blooming (usually May or June) and others are summer-blooming (usually July or August).
Spirea comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s flowers are shades of red, purple, and white and bloom in spring or summer. Shrubs are deer-resistant and easy to maintain.
Flowers are tiny, but abundant, and can resemble masses of apple blossoms. Leaves are usually green but can be blue-green, yellow, or chartreuse and many change color in the fall.
For the most part, spirea can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 4-8, but there are some cultivars that have greater heat and cold tolerance.
Why Grow Spirea?
There’s a lot to love about spirea and its versatility in the garden, but it has other desirable characteristics as well.
Even though the bloom time is spring or summer, spirea has three season interest because of its attractive foliage that is pretty all summer with excellent fall color. Planting a mix of spring- and summer-blooming varieties will give you blossoms almost all season.
Shrubs also attract butterflies and other pollinators once they start blooming. They would make a great addition to a butterfly garden and can even be used as a groundcover or informal hedge.
Spirea flowers attract pollinators, which makes it a friendly choice for beneficial insects. On the downside, certain species are considered invasive in some regions, so check before planting.
Is spirea invasive? Spirea is listed on some sites as being an invasive species. Most cultivars for sale are not invasive because they have specifically been bred to be seedless or tamer than aggressive species. Check with regional experts to find out if any specific spirea are considered invasive in your area.
Main Types and Top Cultivars of Spirea
There are over 80 different species of spirea, but only a few are commonly grown as ornamental plants. Here’s more about the main types as well as the top cultivars to plant.
Main Spirea Species
These species are native to different parts of the world and have their own unique characteristics.
- Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japonica)– This is the species that has the most cultivars and some of the widest variety of height, flower color, and foliage color. Shrubs range from dwarf to well over 5 feet tall and wide. Leaves are usually textured and vary in shades.
- Bridalwreath Spirea (S. prunifolia)– Bridalwreath spirea is an old-fashioned variety that was the main species grown before newer hybrids started coming out in force. It’s taller than other species, growing 4-8 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide. It flowers profusely with small, white blossoms that cover the still bare branches in early spring. Great fall color and hardy down to zone 3.
Bridalwreath spirea is known for its masses of white flowers that bloom on mostly bare branches. You need space to grow this species, though, since it can get 8 feet tall.
- Birchleaf Spirea (S. betulifolia)– This is a more compact species that grows about 3-4 feet tall and wide. It starts blooming with white flowers in the summer and has unique birch-like leaves. Fall color is fantastic.
- Nippon Spirea (S. nipponica)– Nippon spirea grows about 4-5 feet tall and wide and has dark blue-green leaves. Flowers are white and start appearing in late spring.
- Early Spirea (S. thunbergii)– As the name suggests, this species is one of the earliest to bloom in the spring. Flowers are white and umbrella-like, and the foliage is pale green. Shrubs grow 3-5 feet tall with graceful, arching branches.
There are so many cultivar choices that you’re sure to find a spirea to fit into your garden. Here are some of the top ones to consider:
- ‘Double Play Gold’– This is a compact cultivar that grows about 2 feet tall and wide. Foliage is a lovely golden green color and the flowers are hot pink. Summer-blooming and hardy in zones 3-8.
- ‘Anthony Waterer’– This is one of the oldest varieties of Japanese spirea. Shrubs grow 2-3 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. Foliage is blue-green throughout the summer and turns shades of red in the fall. Rose-pink flowers appear in large clusters in late spring. Hardy in zones 4-9.
- ‘Snowmound’– Not compact at all, this cultivar makes a statement, growing 3-5 feet tall and wide. Abundant white flowers start blooming in mid to late spring and almost cover the plants entirely. Hardy in zones 4-8.
- ‘Gold Mound’– Another bright cultivar, ‘Gold Mound’ has brilliant golden yellow leaves in the spring. The foliage becomes more green in summer and turns orange, yellow, and red in the fall. Blooms with pink flowers in late spring and grows 2-3 feet tall. Hardy in zones 4-9.
Some spirea cultivars are grown for their foliage even more so than their flowers. Golden leaved varieties can make a dramatic impact on your landscape and continue their beautiful color into fall.
- ‘Double Play Blue Kazoo’– The foliage of this unique cultivar starts out blue-green and shifts through shades of red, purple, and green. Flowers are white and bloom in late spring. Shrubs can be grown in partial shade and get 2-3 feet tall and wide. Hardy in zones 3-8.
- ‘Double Play Candy Corn’– It’s hard to beat this cultivar for foliage color. Leaves emerge red and turn to shades of yellow and orange. Flowers are a striking dark purple and bloom in late spring. Grows only about 2 feet tall and wide. Hardy in zones 4-7.
- ‘Magic Carpet’– This is one of the shortest cultivars you’ll find, growing 1-2 feet tall. It’s great for small spaces, container gardens, and borders. Leaves emerge red, turn golden, and change back to a deep red in the fall. Pink flowers bloom in late spring. Hardy in zones 3-8.
- Spirea x vanhouttei– If you want a more dramatic look, Vanhoutte spirea grows to the size of a small tree (5-8 feet tall). It has attractive arching branches with green to blue-green leaves. White flowers appear in abundance in the spring and leaves turn a purple hue in the fall. Hardy in zones 3-8.
How to Plant and Grow Spirea
You’ll most likely find many good cultivars of spirea at your local garden center or nursery. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, search online and get your plants mailed right to your door.
Once you have your plants, it’s time to pick out your planting site(s) and get them planted.
When to Plant
Spirea can be planted in either fall or spring, although spring is when you’ll find plants most readily available. Plant early in spring while the weather is still cool or at least 6 weeks before you first average frost in the fall.
Your spirea won’t bloom the first year you plant it (unless you plant it in the fall), but the shrubs grow quickly and should start blooming in the next growing season.
If you miss the spring planting time, you can still plant spirea in the summer, but you’ll need to give it a little more care. Because the weather tends to be hotter and drier during the summer, you’ll need to water your plants more often and possibly give them some shade or mulch.
Where to Plant Spirea
Most spirea cultivars thrive in full sunlight. This means they need to be planted somewhere that gets at least 6 hours of sun each day. Some cultivars (like ‘Blue Kazoo’) will do fine in partial shade.
Spirea is not very picky about soil, but it does prefer well-drained soil. You can add compost before planting to improve drainage and add nutrients to your soil.
Spacing will depend a lot on the mature size of the cultivar(s) you’re planting. This could mean you need to space them anywhere from 2-15 feet apart. You can plant spirea closer together if you want it to form a hedge, but still make sure they won’t be growing on top of each other.
How to Plant
Spirea gets planted exactly like any other shrub. You can start by amending your soil if needed and getting rid of any weeds and debris.
Then, use a garden shovel to dig a hole that’s about twice as wide and the same depth as the root ball of your plant. You can place the container in the hole to check that it’s the right depth before taking your plants out.
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Once you have it the right size, gently lift your spirea out of its container. If the plant is sticking, you can cut the container away with a sharp knife or garden pruners.
Loosen the roots of your plant, especially any that are wrapped around each other. Place it in the hole so that the top of the root ball is just level or slightly under the soil line. Fill in around completely with soil and firm it in with your hands.
Water around your plants thoroughly and add more soil if any of the roots get exposed.
Care Tips + Pruning
After planting, you can add a 2-3 inch layer of compost or mulch to cut down on weeds and help the soil retain moisture for longer.
Your plants will need watered regularly as they get established, but are fairly drought tolerant when mature. A good rule of thumb is to water deeply once a week if plants aren’t getting enough rain water. Spirea in containers will need watered more often.
Spirea will often do just fine without any additional fertilizer, but to keep shrubs at their best, you can fertilize them once a year in early spring. The best choice is a granular fertilizer (5-10-10 or 10-10-10) or a good layer of compost.
Deadheading is optional, but it will make plants look tidier and encourage them to bloom again.
You don’t have to deadhead spirea, but doing so will encourage your plants to produce more flowers. You can also choose to lightly trim back plants once they’ve finished blooming.
Spirea can stand a lot of pruning, but there’s some minimal maintenance pruning that should be done each year to keep your plants healthy. For small shrubs, hand pruners will usually do the job.
In late winter or early spring, prune the shrubs to remove any dead or broken wood. You should also shape them at this time, but keep in mind that making them too small will mean fewer flowers.
After plants finish blooming in spring or summer, you can give them another light trim to tidy them up and encourage new growth (and possibly a second bloom period).
As your plants get older, you can also cut off the oldest stems at ground level, just don’t cut off more than ⅓ of the plant. Some varieties will put up suckers, and these can also be taken off at ground level.
Pests and Problems
Thankfully, spirea is usually pest and disease free. The most common problem you might run across is a fungal disease called powdery mildew. It turns the leaves a powdery white and can spread between plants.
The best way to prevent powdery mildew is to space plants so they get lots of airflow. If the problem becomes severe, you can spray the leaves with an organic fungicide.
Spirea doesn’t usually have any serious pest or disease problems, although it can be affected by insects like aphids and spider mites. They most likely won’t do enough damage to harm your plants and can be controlled with organic insecticides.
Garden Uses and Companion Plants
There are many ways to use spirea in your garden. It can be a specimen plant, used in a mix of deciduous shrubs, or a good addition to a butterfly garden or cottage garden.
Smaller cultivars make great border plants and can also be used as a groundcover, in containers, or to fill in around other perennials. You can also use spirea to make an informal hedge.
Good companions for spirea include other shrubs like forsythia, daphne, weigela, and viburnum.
Many spirea cultivars make excellent cut flowers, especially the larger white-flowering varieties. Cut off clusters of flowers with some of the branch attached and put them in a vase or use in a floral arrangement.