Clethra alnifolia – Summersweet, Pepperbush
A Shrub for Pollinator and Butterfly Gardens
Clethra is one of those shrubs I consider a staple in any wildlife garden. When in bloom, it is full of life. If you walk by it and disturb the plant at all, a small cloud of butterflies and pollinators will rise up and settle back down. The fragrance is heavenly and strong enough to scent a good portion of a yard. It is showy in bloom with flowers borne on spikes over the entire plant from top to bottom.
Clethra alnifolia is native to the eastern/southeastern United states and very low maintenance. It does like water and here in the deep south, requires shade. The shade requirements can come in handy though – even in deep shade, mine have always bloomed profusely and kept a tight, dense form. Finding something to bloom in shade can be a challenge, but summersweet fits the bill.
It is deciduous and I would not consider it a front of the border plant as it’s the last to come back in spring. I mean very last. As in the ‘No It’s Not Dead, Really’ last. When it does return, leaves are a light green and quite attractive. They are smallish and will turn a bright yellow in fall, adding multi seasonal interest. As I said, maintenance is low. It requires no pruning and if your soil is good in the first place, no fertilizing. It’s relatively pest free – in 10 years I have never had a problem with pests or diseases on mine.
Nurserymen are thankfully giving this plant some attention and there are several cultivars to suit different needs and gardens. It’s becoming an easy to find native in the nursery industry. Sizes can range from 6′-10′ to dwarf forms at 3′. ‘Ruby Spice’ is a dwarf form with a pinkish tint to the flowers while most of the others are white. ’16 Candles’ is noted for the upright form of the flower heads, while a recent introduction, ‘Vanilla Spice’, is being touted as deer resistant. As anyone who has deer problems will tell you, we shall see about that. Different cultivars bloom at slightly different times so you can plant a few to prolong the bloom season.
Best of all, butterflies and pollinators love it. It is one of those shrubs which is an guarantee to provide a good sized, easy to grow pollen food source in a habitat garden. If you are trying to attract pollinators and butterflies, put Clethra alnifolia on your ‘must have’ list.
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