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. Beth@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 Michelle@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.
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