Have you ever been driving with the car windows down in late summer when you notice a spicy fragrance wafting through the air? That clove-like scent originates from Clethra alnifolia, commonly known as Summersweet. Clethra is a deciduous shrub native to wetlands and streambanks in eastern North America.
In the wild Clethra will grow to at least 6 feet tall, and because of its suckering nature it can colonize a large area. It prefers to grow in full sun to part shade but will tolerate full shade. Although it appreciates moisture Clethra will adapt to average garden situations. It is relatively unbothered by diseases or pests including deer. Clethra is late to leaf out in the spring, but by early summer is cloaked in glossy dark green foliage. In the fall the foliage turns a nice golden color. One popular variety is ‘Ruby Spice’, a tall type with pink blooms. The white blooming varieties ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’ are more compact at 3 feet.
In addition to its versatility in the landscape Clethra is a wonderful nectar source for butterflies, bees and maybe the occasional hummingbird. It really is just a fabulous plant.