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Clethra alnifolia

Common Name(s):
Clethra, Summersweet, Sweet pepperbush
'Hummingbird', 'Paniculata', 'Pinkspire' , 'Rosea', 'Crystalinia', 'Sixteen Candles', 'Sherry Sue', 'September Beauty', 'Ruby Spice', 'White Doves'
Native Plants, Shrubs

Summersweet clethra, Clethra alnifolia, also known as coastal sweet pepperbush, grows naturally along streams in the eastern United States from Maine to Florida.  This upright deciduous shrub has fragrant white flowers arranged in showy 3- to 5-inch racemes.  It blooms in July and August, providing beauty to the late summer garden as well as food for bees and butterflies.  The fruit, though not showy, is eaten by birds.  Its bark is gray and loosely striped. Use clethra for summer flowers in wet, shady areas, particularly where the fragrance can be appreciated. The plant spreads by stolons.  It is a very hardy, carefree plant that is moderately salt tolerant.

‘Sixteen Candles’ and ‘Hummingbird’ are compact shrubs with white flowers.  ‘Rosea,’ ‘Pink Spires’ and ‘Ruby Spice’ are three pink-flowered cultivars.  ‘Ruby Spice’ is the darkest pink color, which holds even in the coastal plains.  ‘Sherry Sue’ sports white flowers and bright red stems.  ‘September Beauty’ is noteworthy for flowering later in the season. Another interesting species, Clethra tomentosa, has foliage that has soft, short hairs, and very long racemes.  The Japanese pepperbush, Clethra barbinervis, exhibits beautiful cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark as it matures.

Regions:  Piedmont, Coastal Plains

Seasons of Interest:

     Foliage: Fall, yellow  Bloom: Summer   Fruit: Summer-Fall

Seed: Capsule

Play Value: Wildlife Enhancement

Wildlife Value:   The flowers of the Sweet pepperbush attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  Its fruit attracts birds. This plant is resistant to damage by deer.

Insects, Diseases, or Other Plant Problems:  Spider mites may be a concern in dry conditions.  When planted in the proper site, it is insect- and disease- resistant.

Compare this plant to: Clethra alnifolia

3-8 ft.
The Sweet pepperbush has alternate, simple, errate, obovate to oblong, glossy medium to dark green leaves (to 3-4” long) turn variable but generally attractive shades of yellow to golden brown in fall. The leaves are late to leaf out in spring.
The Sweet pepperbush is noted for producing a mid to late summer bloom of sweetly fragrant white flowers which appear in narrow, upright panicles (racemes to 2-6" long). It has five white, pink or rose petals that occur on current seasons growth. The flowers give way to dark brown seed capsules (1/8" diameter) which may persist into winter.
The Sweet pepperbush is easily grown in average, medium to wet soils in full sun to part shade. It prefers part shade and consistently moist, acidic, sandy soils. Soils should not be allowed to dry out. It will tolerate clay soils and salt spray. It will also tolerate full shade. Promptly remove root suckers unless naturalized look is desired. Propagation can be done by cuttings. Prune if needed in late winter.
Dense oval to upright shrub; rounded top; often suckers to form a colony
Partial shade; moist to wet soil; tolerates salt spray
Intense, spicy fragrance white racemes in summer
4-6 ft.
butterflies, wet sites, bees, native, play, playground, pollinator, hummingbirds, salt tolerant, deer resistant, fragrance, birds, deciduous, salt spray tolerant, coastal, wildlife, children’s garden, cpp, fragrant flowers, wet, wet soil, highly beneficial coastal plants

NCCES plant id: 465

Clethra alnifolia Flower spike
Tom Potterfield, CC BY-NC-SA - 2.0
Clethra alnifolia C. alnifolia in the wild
John Brandauer, CC BY-NC-ND - 2.0
Clethra alnifolia close up of flowers and flower buds
JC Raulston Arboretum
Clethra alnifolia Plant form
JC Raulston Arboretum