Against the ragstone walls of the Old Croquet Lawn at Chartwell you will find the shrub seen in the picture above. We often get asked what it is and some of our visitors even suggest that it might be a Garrya elliptica. A good guess, but no. It is in fact a very impressive example of the Itea ilicifolia plant. As well as the attractive glossy holly-like foliage, this evergreen shrub gets many an admiring look mostly due to the honey-scented long, drooping catkinesque flowers that cascade down from its branches. These flowers are on display during late Summer and well into Autumn, turning from green to whitish green as they mature. It is said that their sweet scent becomes even more enticing during the evening time.
This Itea loves full sun (although it will tolerate some shade) and this is just what it receives against the Old Croquet Garden wall at Chartwell. Found on the level up from Lady Churchill’s Rose Garden, this area was the original site for the croquet games played here by the Chuchill family. The Croquet Lawn on the other side of the house that you can see and enjoy today at Chartwell was originally a hard tennis court. Once Sir Winston and Lady Churchill became too old for tennis however, they re-sited their croquet arena to that much larger area, leaving what we now call the Old Croquet Lawn to become a more simple, informal lawn and garden.
Itea ilicifolia, also known as the Holly-leaved Sweet Spire, is a gardeners’ dream! It tolerates acidic, neutral or alkaline soils and is generally pest and disease free. In perfect conditions it can reach up to 4m in height and stretch to 2.5m across, but may take up to 20 years to reach this size.
Awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in 1984, Itea is from the Escalloniaceae familiy, puting it alongside the likes of Escallonia and Forgesia. Itea ilicifolia was introduced to the UK by Augustine Henry from Yichang, central China, for Lord Kesteven who successfully grew it to flower first in 1895. Early introductions were said to need wall shelter at places like Kew Gardens, and still today some young plants may need Winter protection in harsh conditions. Later samples collected from higher altitudes by the likes of Ernest Wilson gave this plant greater hardiness in this country. Growing against a wall as we have done here at Chartwell will certainly help any young shoots to survive most things that Jack Frost can throw at it though!
You won’t see Itea ilicifolia in every garden you visit around the UK, so make sure you come and have a look at ours the next time you’re at Chartwell. Make sure you give the flowers a good sniff too, but watch out for the the spiky leaves on your nose!