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Clethra alnifolia

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

Looks Pretty; Smells Devine
Summer heat and humidity causes folks to think about escaping to swimming pools, lakes, mountain retreats, and beaches. Why not stay home and find refuge in your garden with our native Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia).

In July, Summersweet produces spikes of spicy fragrant flowers atop a 3 to 8 ft. high multi-stemmed shrub with attractive lustrous green leaves. The flowers mature to clusters of woody capsules that look like dried peppercorns. In the fall, Summersweet leaves turn pale yellow to rich golden yellow.

 For you and me, Summersweet is a visual and olfactory delight. To butterflies and other pollinating insects, it’s a smorgasbord of nectar and pollen. While you can settle for growing the straight species, take a close look at an extensive menu of desirable cultivars that include ‘Hummingbird’, a compact, white-flowering gem that tends to flower more heavily than other named cultivars, 'Sixteen Candles,' a selection that bears 4- to 6-inch long arrow-straight spikes of white flowers that look like birthday candles, and 'Sherry Sue', a cultivar that offers multi-season interest: white flowers in midsummer, golden fall-colored leaves, and brightly colored red stems in winter and early spring. You want pink? 'Ruby Spice' will take you to your “happy place” with rose-pink flowers.

Summersweet grows in partial shade to full sun, but from my experience, shade from the afternoon sun keeps it looking its best unless you provide water during very dry spells. Use this multi-stemmed shrub in mixed borders, damp areas, rain gardens, bogs, or in naturalized areas along streams and ponds.

Yes, I am smitten by this native shrub, which forces me to end with this cheesy line: Summer will never be as sweet without Summersweet.