The careful insect ‘midst his works I view,
Now from the flowers exhaust the fragrant dew,
With golden treasures load his little thighs,
And steer his distant journey through the skies.
~ John Gay
I am contemplating the next plant to include in my Dozen for Diana, a wonderful meme found at Elephant’s Eye. I decided to add a shrub this month that I really love, Clethra alnifolia, part of the Sweet-Pepperbush Family (Clethraceae). But in order to grow this deciduous shrub you must have patience as it is late to leaf out in spring, which is why I think many people hesitate to plant it or give up too soon. But the lovely flowers and their sweet fragrance are well worth the wait. Clethra has no serious insect or disease problems. The one pictured below is 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide in moist part shade.
This plant is native to eastern North America, and along the Atlantic seaboard. It grows to 3-8 feet high and 4-6 feet wide in zones 4-9. Clethra likes its feet moist, the moister, the better. It will grow in many soil types including sandy and clay soils, and does not like drought conditions. Clethra is perfect for coastal gardens or wherever you may have salt-spray conditions.
It forms a dense-leaf shrub of deep green leaves in summer turning yellow, brown and red in fall. Pink flower buds are quickly replaced by white to pale pink flowers in July and August. They then form brown capsules which stay through winter. Clethra can be heavily pruned in spring as it flowers on new wood. Once this shrub is established, little care is needed.
Experts say you can propagate clethra through clump or root divisions, softwood cuttings with or without hormone treatment under mist or sow seed on sand. I have never tried to propagate this shrub, but may give it a try next year.
There are between 30-70 different species of Clethra shrubs that are either evergreen or deciduous, and all have clusters of flowers. They are found from temperate to tropical climates in eastern and southeastern Asia, Central America, northern South America and the eastern and southeastern United States.
It grows in wet forests, wetlands, bogs and along woodland streams here.
Clethra’s name comes from the Greek for “Alder”, a type of tree. Alnifolia means “Alder-foliage”, due to its slight resemblance to the leaves of an alder.
Clethra alnifolia is also called Coastal sweet pepperbush and Summer sweet. The “Pepper” part of the name comes from the fruit that forms resembling peppercorns. The name Summer sweet comes from the later summer fragrant flowers.
There are no edible uses for clethra, but it is a wonderful shrub to use in the landscape, and for pollinators.
Clethra is a great shrub for a native plant or wildlife garden. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love these native flowers. Many birds are said to eat the fruit although I have not observed them, but the fruit seems to disappear. Pictured left is a white admiral butterfly partaking of the sweet nectar.
In the landscape clethra is very adaptable especially in moist part shade or heavy shade, and tolerates acidic soil. Clethra Alnifolia ‘Hummingbird” is great in heavy shade and is dwarf sized. Because clethra has a colonizing nature, you can use it as a shrub border or screen. It has also been used for erosion control, and I am planning to use some in my wetter areas. I always say plant one close by so you can appreciate the scent. That is why I have one growing right off the patio.
Beekeepers say clethra makes a clear thin watery honey. It is also said that if you take the flowers and rub them between your hands with water, they make suds. I will have to try this.
Language of Flowers
There is no direct meaning for clethra, but since it resembles alder leaves, I decided to go with that to find some meaning.
Alders are powerful trees said to remind of us hidden powers and they were used by sorcerers.
In ancient Celtic legend, the wood of the young alder is used for whistles and flutes which gives the alder its airy nature.
Alders are also associated with fire, and were used as charcoal to forge Celtic weaponry.
The flowers in this post are from Clethra alnifolia, ‘Ruby Spice’.
Sweet warm fragrance catches the wind
Explodes with all the senses drawn in
Keep her head in part sun, her feet wet-
And oh the rewards in late summer you are sure to get!
Check out other posts in the series, Simply the Best:
Don’t forget that September 1st marks the next installment of Seasonal Celebrations/Garden Lessons Learned. Click the link to learn more. [email protected]PlantPostings will be wrapping up this past season with lessons we have learned in our gardens, and I will be setting the stage for next season’s celebrations (fall up N and spring down S of the equator). What do you love to do in the this upcoming season? What holidays or rituals make it a wonderful season for you? How does your garden grow and what favorite plants will be blooming? I hope you will be joining us. Just create a post and link in with both or one of us between September 1st and the 20th, and around the 21st we will reveal those lessons and celebrations.
Next up on the blog: Saturday is September 1st which means it is time for my next Seasonal Celebrations post. Then next Monday will be time for another garden journal entry, Gardens Eye Journal. And join me for a my contribution to Beth’s Lesson Learned on the 10th. September 13th is a special day on the blog as I celebrate my second anniversary. September will be a busy month on the blog, in the garden and at work….whew!!
I will be linking in with [email protected]Rambling Woods for her Nature Notes meme. It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every Wednesday.
As always, I’ll be joining Tootsie Time’s Fertilizer Friday.
I have reduced my writing also at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. My next post will be September 18th and then every four weeks after that.
Please remember, to comment click on the title of the post and the page will reload with the comments section.
All original content is copyrighted and the sole property of Donna Donabella @ Gardens Eye View, 2010-2012. Any reprints or use of content or photos is by permission only.
63 Replies to “Simply The Best-August”
I’ve never seen or heard of this plant before. Not for my dry, free draining soil but looks a good plant to have with the right conditions. Christina
Indeed it is Christina…it would not be happy in your lovely garden as it is a water hog.
Donna like Christina I’ve never heard of this plant before but then I know so little there are a zillion plants I’ve never heard of, it sounds like a beautiful many season plant, not a native this side of the Atlantic though, it sounds like it would do well in my coastal garden especially as it blooms on the current years wood, with the winter winds here I am finding plants that bloom on the current years wood do better than those that bloom on last years wood, if it was native I’d be searching the internet to see where I could buy one but as it’s not it goes on my think about list, thanks for the info on Alders which I have and like, Frances
So glad you enjoyed the info on the clethra and alders…I understand wanting to wait as it is not a native for you Frances…
Lovely bloom; I’ve never heard of it before, but any native that attracts wildlife is excellent in my book and no doubt it’s a great addition to your garden 🙂
I couldn’t agree more Liz…a must have in a wildlife garden!
I have Vanilla Spice and love it!!! Mine are starting to send rhizomes out and little sprouts from those. The fragrance is so wonderful. A great shrub to have in any garden.
Oh janet how wonderful as those sprouts will keep growing and Vanilla Spice is a wonderfully scented clethra.
I came across clethra once or twice when I lived in the northeast — one of those things where you smell the fragrance and then can’t rest until you trace it to its source. What a lovely gift it offers, too, to bloom late in the summer. Is this one of your rain garden plants? I love this meme of Diana’s, even though it always fills me with plant envy!
Actually it is on the edge of one of the rain gardens. I hope to add a few more here and there. It is an added value plant that is special in late summer. So happy you enjoyed the post Stacy!
I must get some thank you
Glad to hear that Sharon…
I am surprised to see readers not ever hearing of this plant. It is pretty common up here and the farm grows it for wholesale. I just noticed you copyrighted your blog content. Can you tell me how you did that? I only know to register the photographs and that is actually a real pain in doing so. How is it different for the written word?
I think clethra is an underutilized plant especially where gardens are dry or have more drought…copyrighting your blog is quite easy…here’s a link
forging a Celtic sorcerer’s sword … what magic you weave around a beloved plant!
Ah Diana you like the magic…I enjoy the stories behind the plants. So happy you enjoyed the post.
It’s beautiful. I don’t much about it at all so appreciate the information.
Glad the post gave you some info…it is a beauty!
I am not particularly smitten by it, but if the butterflies love it, i will love it too! :-)). We have some weeds in the property, which are really weeds but because they love it i am tempted to bring them closer to home.
I understand…it is so lovely in person and sometimes it may be dwarfed by a bigger flower or brighter bloom…but oh yes the pollinators love it.
Wow great site thanks for sharing keep it up .
Glad you enjoyed your visit.
Hi Donna, never heard of Clethra, so pleased to learn something new. Maybe it does grow here, I’ll have to watch out for it. The way you describe the scented flowers make it extra appealing to me. cheers, cm
Love to hear if you find it there Catmint…it is just a wonderful shrub!
What a fabulous post! I’m so glad I found you. I had a clethera for a while, but it died. I should give it another try. I love the fragrant flowers.
Oh how nice of you to say so and I am glad you could visit…absolutely give it another try if you have the right spot…stop back anytime!
I have a clethra in my garden, but unfortunately, it’s a favorite of the caterpillars – or grasshoppers. It’s starting to leaf out now, though. I am anxious for it to get established as it is fairly new. I appreciated seeing the bush shot of yours – very nice. And all the information, too. I didn’t know all of this!
Glad to hear yours is finally showing some signs of life and glad the post helped. I have not had pest problems with mine thankfully.
I really love clethra—such a great native. The dwarf version ‘Hummingbird’ may be my favorite.
I love ‘Hummingbird’ too Carolyn…such a sweet shrub.
I have never heard of the Clethra alnifolia, I had to look it up and it seems it would be ideal for my acid London garden – if I had the space for it….Great post with lots of information, wish I could squeeze one in somewhere, can you prune it hard when it gets mature?
Yes you can prune it back helene but I don’t think you can prune it too hard…there are dwarf varieties though so that would work I bet…
First time I’ve seen ruby spice. You know so much about flowers. Lovely photos–I like all the different angles and colors! 🙂
So glad you liked the photos Loredana….I love learning about the flowers in my garden 🙂
I don’t know much about Clethra, although I think some people grow it around here, too. It combines a beautiful bloom with an attractive shrub. Thanks for introducing me. 🙂
Glad to sing clethra’s praises Beth…more folks should plant it!! Glad you liked it.
Clethra is new to me too, but you write about it very persuasively.
Thanks Janet. I do so love this shrub. I have it right out side a window so I can look upon it as the seasons slide by.
This is beautiful and my wheels are spinning..I am hoping that next season is a less hot and dry one so I can plant more..Of course I have your seed to sew this fall across the pond..that is the ones that need to be put in then…thank you for linking into Nature Notes..I can see that others are interested too..Michelle
Thanks Michelle. I have ordered clethra online and you can find dwarf varieties too…I bet you have a moist part shade spot that would love this plant. Wait until later fall to sow the seeds…hopefully it will be colder and wet by then.
Beautiful plant and its flowers. Haven’t heard of it but it does look pretty. And the fact that it attracts butterflies and humming birds makes it more amazing.
Katy glad you enjoyed the clethra..it is pretty amazing.
Enjoy finding ‘little thighs’ in a verse.
Looks as if you need a lot of space to grow this bush.
It is a fun verse Lucy. Actually it grows about 5 ft high and 4 ft wide although there are dwarf varieties and you can prune it back to keep it smaller…it seems well behaved.
I’ve never grown Clethra. Perhaps, I should try it. Must think of a spot. 🙂 Yes, it’s been simply the best August. The plants are responding with abundant growth to the cooler temperatures. Although we are still in the mid-90s, I’ll take that over 114 any day.
I wish we had some rain and cooler temps…my garden looks like late Sept…so glad you like clethra Dee…
This is a new plant for me too. It’s quite a lovely thing. The flowers are beautiful.
You have wonderful taste…it is quite a lovely flower and shrub…
They are lovely shrubs, we had one pop up in the nursery, no one had any idea where it came from. But it picked it’s location perfectly, and was allowed to live in the rocks where it bloomed forever.
Since I read that they are hardy to zone 4, I think I might try one out.
Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams
How wonderful to have one pop up. Find a part shade area that is more moist during the spring and summer…I pick the places where water collects or are bad draining. Rocks are great too as long as water collects there since they like water….
Three! Yes, three times I have tried to grow a Clethra. Three different varieties. Three different years. Three identical outcomes: death.
When you say it needs moist soil, you aren’t a kiddin.’ My garden’s soil gets too dry in the summer even with my constant watering. I wonder if I could grow it in a big pot with a hefty saucer below it, filled with reserve water. I might have to try this maybe with a better outcome.
The flowers are so beautiful and I love the fragrance. And I love that it blooms later in the season. It’s always nice to have something new when the garden itself is starting to grow weary with wear.
Oh Grace you are brave and surely love this plant to try again. I would try the dwarf variety ‘Hummingbird’ which has a white flower. It may do better in a pot. I wish you luck as it does require lots of water to establish itself. I did not water it this year even in the drought since it was established nor have I watered it after the first year in the garden as the area it is in is half shade and is near a down spout. Happy gardening my friend! 🙂
I have never grown this shrub, but the ‘Hummingbird’ clethra may be perfect for my woodland garden. Thanks!
Oh Deb absolutely it loves part sun and moist soil…
That is one lovely plant and the flowers are beautiful, a perfume did you say. Will keep eyes open for this plant.
It is a well worth looking for Karen…glad you enjoyed the post!
This was one of favorites when we were selecting plants for my Mother’s garden on the east coast. I loved how the pollinators were drawn to it in the garden nursery. Unfortunately, she lost patience with it, as apparently it can spread quite rampantly, and last I heard, she’d pulled it all up! I didn’t really understand why, but maybe it was spreading out of control more than I thought. I have to think the bees and butterflies in her garden miss its lovely pink blooms though.
Clare I have had mine for over 5 years and it has not spread. I can understand her frustration but it is so lovely and you are right those pollinators will be missing it.
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