The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

What's Blooming? Eastern Sweet Pepperbush

Posted by
Ginger Laurits
| August 15, 2017 | Filed under: Observations
Clethra alnifolia blossom. Photo by Ginger Laurits.

If I had to pick one plant for my garden, I would choose Clethra alnifolia, eastern sweet pepperbush. For ease of growing, appearance throughout the season, toughness, and pollinator attraction, it's hard to top. Whether planted in shade or sun, dry soil or wet — you name it — clethra is happy. I moved an established plant in my home garden in the middle of last summer’s drought, gave it a light canopy and regular water, and it showed no signs of distress. Now that’s one tough cookie.

Clethra is a Maine native found growing in swampy woodlands, wet marshes, stream banks, and seashores. It sends up white, fragrant, conical blooms that open from the bottom up in the mid to late summer lull. In his book Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines, Bill Cullina likens the bloom to a narrow, pointed Gothic steeple and says “Clethra in bloom is almost overwhelming in a giddy, nose tingling sense.” Judging by their numbers at my plants, insects feel the same way. Clethra is always buzzing with bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Honeybee on clethra blossom, Native Plant Border, August 15, 2017.
One might express concern about having a plant in the yard that attracts so many bees and wasps, for fear of being stung. We have over 270 species of native bees in Maine. Not all species sting. No male bees sting. Many small bee stings feel no worse that plucking one’s eyebrows (for those who still pluck eyebrows).

On the other hand, queen and worker honeybees and bumblebees can give nasty stings. For some, a bee sting can be life threatening so precautions must be taken. The best advice to avoid being stung is to stay out of the bee’s way. Observe where the bees are coming from and where they are going. Look at a flower before smelling it, and if walking in bare feet on your lawn, look down. And don’t reach your hand inside a sweet pepperbush as I did — for what reason I can’t recall, but it was not a smart one. Yes, I was stung.

There is great value in providing nectar and pollen for the organisms that pollinate our wildflowers, agricultural crops, fruit orchards, and backyard vegetable and flower gardens. Bees are essential for sustaining our forests, fields, meadows, pastures, and roadsides. Without them, life on earth would be in peril. So plant clethra in your garden. You won’t be disappointed.

The Name

Clethra is derived from the Greek klethra, meaning alder, and alnifolia means alder-leaved. It looks like an alder, but it’s not. Eastern sweet pepperbush is also known as summersweet.


Clethra in bloom in the Native Plant Border, August 15, 2017.

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