Trees are usually our first thought when we think of fall color, but some shrubs are real stunner as well. Summersweet, know in some places as Sweet Pepperbush, is an excellent shrub for the landscape with great fall color. It also has lovely, fragrant flower spikes and thick, shiny leaves in the summer, so it’s a winner all year long.
Summersweet is native to the coastal regions of the southeastern U.S. where it grows naturally on semi-shaded riverbanks in forests and on the edge of forests. If left to its own devices, it will spread by suckers to form a colony, and in the wild this helps to stabilize streambanks. In the landscape, suckers can be removed without much effort to keep them in place. There are many varieties of summersweet available in different sizes. The wild species is pretty large, growing up to eight feet tall, but one of the most popular varieties, Hummingbird, tops out at four feet tall in ideal conditions, but will stay closer to 2-3’ tall in most clay Midwest soils. It’s a great pick for rain gardens since it can tolerate wet conditions. The sweet and spicy smelling flowers are popular with both people and pollinators.
Common Name: Summersweet or Sweet Pepperbush
Scientific Name: Clethra alnifolia
Light: full sun to partial shade
Size: 2-8’ tall and 2-6’ wide (varies widely depending on variety)
Bloom Time and Color: white or pink upright flower spikes in late summer
Notable Varieties: ‘Sixteen Candles’ (narrower, semi-dwarf variety 4-5’ tall and 2-3’ wide with white flowers), ‘Ruby Spice’ (pink-flowering variety slightly more compact than straight species), ‘Hummingbird’ (dwarf variety 2-4’ tall and 3-5’ wide with white flowers)
Soil: can grow in sand or clay, tolerates soggy conditions
Other Notes: good fall color, attracts pollinators, fragrant flowers, spreads by suckers if permitted