Sweet pepperbushBotanical name: Clethra...


August 31, 1991|By Amalie Adler Ascher

Sweet pepperbush

Botanical name: Clethra alnifolia

Pronunciation: Kleth-ra

Family: Clethraceae (White Alder)

Origin: Eastern N. America

Class: Shrub

Display period: July, August

Height: 4 to 8 feet

Environment: Sun or shade

It was my nose that led me to clethra, a plant I was unfamiliar with until it bloomed in my garden (established by the former owner). Wondering at the source of an extraordinarily sweet perfume, I sniffed around until I found it. Its scent accounts for clethra's other popular name, summer-sweet.

Fragrance isn't clethra's only asset. It flowers in midsummer when few other shrubs do, and in the fall it splashes the landscape with a golden mass of color. The blossoms are somewhat unusual, too. White or a delicate pink, depending on variety, they're shaped like a bottle brush.

When it's in flower (which lasts four to six weeks), clethra buzzes with bee activity, the insects also attracted by the odor. The shrub otherwise seems not to appeal to disease organisms or pests, although under dry conditions, mites may attack it. Even so, you can grow clethra in moderately dry soil. It also adapts to a fairly damp environment, allowing you to situate it at the edge of a pond.

A native American shrub, clethra takes its name from klethra, the Greek name for the alder tree. The two plants share a similarity in the character of their foliage. Clethra, however, is clump-forming, suckering at the bottom to increase its girth.

Michael A. Dirr, a professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia, rates clethra "first-class" and a better performer than forsythia, deutzia, roses-of-Sharon, mock orange and other such shrubs. He'd like to see it used a "lot more than it is."

Easy to root as soft-wood cuttings, clethra, because it blooms on new wood, should be pruned, if at all, after flowers have faded. I never touched mine except to clip branches for arranging.

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