Spireas Just Want To Be Free!


I'm with Susan. Flowering shrubs are just magical and too little used in American yards, maybe because their bloom period is limited. The answer to that, of course, is to plant a sequence of them, so something is always exploding in the yard.

When I first moved to the country about 18 years ago, I got an interesting job in politics in Albany. I had a long commute of an hour each way every day alone in my Dodge, only bearable because 45 minutes of it was over the most beautiful country roads imaginable. The houses were mostly built in that great Greek Revival boom period between 1820 and 1850, and many of the flowering shrubs were of an "old-fashioned" type not familiar to me. 

I used to love to tick off the weeks by what was blooming, and one of my favorite weeks was the bridal wreath spirea week, which followed the lilac week.

(There is some disagreement online as to whether bridal wreath spirea and spirea vanhouttei are the same plants or different. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica says the same.  My shrub reference, The Random House Book of Shrubs, is no help whatsoever, mentioning neither bridal wreath nor vanhouttei.)


My Albany commute convinced me that this spirea's highest use is as a hedge, preferably in the open countryside, where it looks like a photosynthesizing waterfall.

Second best is a single spirea allowed the room to behave like falling water.

What spirea really doesn't want is a haircut. But this is exactly how most of the landscapers in my part of the world use it today, trimmed up into blocks, and trimmed at the wrong time, too, so most of the flowers go with the trimmings.

IMG_2377 For example, this awful-looking hedge is actually in a professionally planted and maintained yard.  Last year, these were blocks.  This year, they are just meaningless.

Here's an amateur attempt at control, a giant spirea hassock.

Bridal wreath spirea has silly little leaves and little disks of tiny white flowers.  The flowers turn an ugly brown as soon as they fade.  It's only charming if allowed to do its one trick, the fountain of blooms trick.  But then, it puts much better endowed shrubs to shame.


  1. We moved out to the country a couple of years ago and were amazed when a long line of shrubbery first turned a striking yellow in early spring — forsythia! — and then just as those flames were beginning to die down, out came the spray of spirea. Just lovely — it is my absolute favorite part of the landscape.

  2. I live in an old house in New Jersey, and there was some Bridal Wreath here when we moved in 34 years ago. I’ve learned that if you cut it way back right after it’s done blooming, you’ll get a wonderful dense mass of bloom the following year. Those landscapers probably pruned at the wrong time.
    Another wonderful way to use it is planted next to flowering quince; it sort of insinuates its blooms next to the red blossoms of the quince and is absolutely gorgeous.

  3. I have one in bloom right now, going on my 31st season with it, and it was here when I moved here, so it’s an old timer, tried and true. Love it!!

  4. We’ve made a couple of abortive attempts to corral our one big spirea…

    You mentioned “giving it room”; well… ours is the SIZE of a room:)

    A very pretty sight the last 2 weeks; it has just faded away…

  5. There’s one in our neighbor’s yard next to our gate. Every time we go through the gate we end up covered in white confetti. Gorgeous shrub but I wish they came in a smaller size!

  6. Meghan–I am with you on forsythia!

    Just yesterday I noticed bridal wreath planted on a city lot flanking the sidewalk and pruned to little 3-foot balls. Very sad!

    I have a bank of shrubs wrongly planted next to the house, including a bridal wreath. They are in the front and totally obscure the face of the house. After many years of agnozing, I am getting them all taken out and replacing them with a shade garden.

  7. I have a few of the ‘dwarf’ variety – Garland Spirea – Spiraea x arguta – just as beautiful but more compact than the Bridal Wreath. Plus it blooms a week or so earlier. Left unpruned they look like giant sea creatures, with white tendrils shooting off in all directions. Love it.

  8. Wow, you found examples of some really hideous pruning! And really,
    ALL this multiple-branched flowering shrugs just want to be free and are SO gorgeous when they are. Otherwise, UGH.

    The pruning they DO need is called renewal pruning, and it’s easy and really works! After the flowers fade just remove up to one-third of all the major stems all the way to the ground, choosing the oldest stems first for removal, and then targeting the ones that crowd the others.
    Now how hard is that?

  9. A fellow gardener in my office told me that he will not ever have a forsythia in his yard “because they bloom for such a short time and then they look like crap.” I felt sad for him – what about the all the time you spend in anticipation of the beautiful yellow wash of flowers – I just LOVE that time because you know that after forsythia come the lilacs and then roses . . I haven’t asked him how he feels about any other plant, but with that attitude, I don’t think I care to know.

    I love Garden Rant!

  10. When I see a forsythia a) clipped tightly into rectangles or b) lopped off at the top so that it becomes all dense, twiggy and (more’s the pity) flowerless I want to sneak in at night at do the rejuvenation thing that Susan talked about.

    Is this urge akin to liberating gnomes, do you think?

  11. If you can bring yourself to cut back (every single stem ,all the way to the ground,called rejuvenation in pruning ) that huge old spring blooming spirea (or however many it once was)two years later you will be rewarded with a beautiful fountain of white blooms on a managable sized shrub.
    Then do not start shearing to keep size. Do as Susan recommends and do renewal every few years to maintain.

  12. By the way, that hedge will make a great backdrop for rest of the garden and is a pretty subtle fall color that hangs on much longer than most.
    Forsythia is pretty when young or out of control.
    I don’t think I would plant either but our existing old spirea hedge earns its keep.

  13. Many spireas will re-bloom with a pruning off of spent blooms.

    There are many varieties of spirea superior to bridal wreath i.e. Little Princess, and ‘crispa’ with it’s sharply incised fine foliage.

    The TROLL

  14. I recently read an early 1900 landscape book and it mentions Van H. and Bridal W. as two seperate shrubs. No latin names given.

  15. My whole town is in bloom with lilac and Spiraea VanHouttei. It’s really an amazing shrub for the few weeks it’s in bloom. This is a very old cultivars and there have new spireas introduced but for a spring flower display this plant is hard to beat, so long as you give it room to do its thing.

  16. Maybe its just me, but I would rate Spirea as one of the worst smelling shrubs when in bloom. The scent of the flowers offsets any beauty from the one week a year that they bloom.

  17. To clarify Greg Drains mention of the actually being a difference between Vanhouttei and Bridalwreath … there is! They are not the same shrub at all. Nurseries have just for the majority ceased growing Bridalwreath and taken up telling everyone that you can’t tell them apart. Yet, you could if you had them planted side by side.

  18. More on Bridal Wreath: Mine have finished blooming and I haven’t gotten around to pruning yet. Good thing. There’s a nice clump growing outside my window, which allowed me to discover that caterpillars feed on the spent blooms, and caterpillars are bird food. Not only that, Goldfinches also feed on the spent blooms. Don’t know what’s there–the seeds must be incredibly tiny.

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