fbpx

Clethra, Our Favorite Native Shrub

Picture of WESTON WHOLESALE BLOG

WESTON WHOLESALE BLOG


Among my favorite summer pleasures, golfing, bicycling or walking in the woods, is experiencing the heady, honey-peppery perfume of Clethra alnifolia, commonly and aptly known as sweet pepperbush or summersweet. In bloom from late July and well into August, individual white florets open progressively along the 3-6” upright spikes (technically “racemes”), permeating the air. Clethra in the wild is often camouflaged by the forest canopy, so becoming engulfed by such a uniquely enchanting aroma can be an inspiring mystery, particularly enjoyable on those oppressively-humid midsummer days. 

A densely-branched, deciduous and suckering shrub, Cletha is native to, and can dominate, swampy woodlands and moist areas along the coast and inland from Maine to Florida. Generally maturing at 6 feet or more, its flowers attract pollinators like butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, and it is resistant to deer browsing.  Late to leaf-out in spring, often waiting until May, the glossy dark green 3-4” summer leaves take on attractive shades of yellow to golden brown in autumn before dropping. Its “pepperbush” name derives from its numerous 1/8” diameter dark brown seed capsules which persist into winter.

Although it prefers moist soil conditions, Cletha and its cultivars adapt well in most local gardens (as long as the soil doesn’t dry out), full sun or partial shade, even tolerating roadside and seaside conditions. Because it forms flowers on new growth, it can be cut-back most anytime, ideally in late fall or early spring, without sacrificing bloom. The species and many cultivars tend to be stoloniferous –spreading by underground stems – especially in moist locations, and this can be a benefit as they are easily maintained in your garden.

In addition to the species, several recent Clethra alnifolia cultivars offer features compatible for many gardens: ‘Paniculata’ is similar in most aspect to the species, but with larger and more abundant flowers; ‘Vanilla Spice’ grows to about six feet tall and 3-5 feet wide, featuring large, very fragrant flowers; ‘Ruby Spice’ is a Cary Award winning selection (see http://caryaward.towerhillbg.org/2017/10/31/ruby-spice-summersweet), reaching 5-6 feet high and wide with fragrant, rosy-pink flowers, the darkest yet available.

Several more-compact-growing cultivars are especially suitable for smaller gardens: ‘Hummingbird’ matures at about 3 feet high and wide and blooms more profusely than the species; heavy-flowering with stiff upright flower racemes, ‘Sixteen Candles grows in a compact mound shape half the size of the species, with dark green leaves and less tendency to spread underground; even more compact, ‘Sugartina’ grows to less than three feet high, and wider than high.

Try sweet pepperbush and some of its cultivars and bring the fragrant enjoyment of “summer-in-the forest” into your own yard!

Share this post

Monarda
Plant Notes

Perennials for July Color

By the time July comes around summer is in full swing, and the choice of perennials that could be highlighted is large, so to compile a short list means I

Read More »
Pollinators
Plants

Pollinator’s World

June is pollinator month in Massachusetts and the third week in June is also National Pollinator Week.  Making a space that is pollinator friendly can involve planting a variety of

Read More »
Teams Image
Plant Notes

Women Horticulturists

By Catherine Cooper While many famous names in horticulture belong to men, throughout the centuries there have been many women who have made notable contributions to the various fields of

Read More »
Fall Colors
Plant Notes

Conditions For Fall Color

By Catherine Cooper- Updated for 2023! New England is renowned for its fall foliage of fiery reds and oranges, but as anyone who has experienced at least a few northeastern

Read More »