Hummingbird SummersweetClethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’
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Clethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’
Outdoor Growing zone
Full Sun, Partial Sun, Shade
Damp, low-lying parts of the garden can be almost as hard to fill as shady spots, and often they become overgrown and weedy. When you have both shade and damp, it gets even harder. You can solve that problem, and brighten the second half of summer too, with the wonderful Hummingbird Summersweet. Also called pepperbush, this improved version of a plant native to eastern America is going to solve your problems wherever you have damp shady areas. Its spikes of fragrant white flowers really do attract hummingbirds, as well as butterflies, and its modest height means it will fit into any garden – even small ones – and grow in all light conditions. Yet pests and diseases stay away, and as long as it has some water, you have a happy and reliable shrub that grows in every part of our vast country.
The Hummingbird Summersweet is a deciduous shrub that grows to a compact 3 feet or so, with a broader spread. Many stems rise from the base and around it, creating a dense clump in a few years that fills spaces and blocks out weeds. The slender leaves are about 3 inches long, tapering to a rounded point, and with an edge of fine serrations. They are an exceptionally healthy looking dark green, and in fall they turn shades of glowing gold.
Flowering begins in the second half of summer, and continues for several weeks. The new stems that sprouted in the spring grow a long cluster of many tiny white flowers. These spikes are up to 6 inches long, and the blooms open gradually from the bottom, so blooming lasts up to 6 weeks, at a time when it can be hard to find plants in bloom. The tiny, fluffy blossoms have a striking scent which some people say reminds them of licorice, and they attract butterflies like magnets, plus bees and hummingbirds too. When they fade they are replaced by round, dark-brown to dark-gray seed pods, which make an interesting display through the winter months. These seed pods look like peppercorns, giving this plant the alternative name of pepper bush, but they don’t have any particular flavor.
This is a plant native to North America, so it is ideal for natural gardens, and for following the current trend of choosing native over alien species (which can become invasive in some areas). It is perfect if you have wet areas, and it even grows in brackish water near the sea, making it perfect for a beach cottage. In shrub beds it can be used for all the shady areas, as it will bloom well even in full shade, and it grows well in partial shade and full sun too, as long as the soil isn’t dry. Mass planted in groups of 3, 5, 7 or more, it is a great way to fill spaces around larger trees and older shrubs.
The Hummingbird Summersweet is incredibly hardy, growing all the way from zone 3 (where it will probably not grow more than 2 feet tall) into zone 9 – it’s happy anywhere if it has some moisture.
The ideal location for this bush is with morning sun and afternoon shade, but in moist soil it will grow in full sun, especially in cool zones. It will grow in full shade too, particularly in hotter parts of the country. It is not particular about the type of soil, as long as it is moist, although it grows in ordinary garden soil in cooler zones. It tolerates clay soil well, but not highly alkaline soils, which can turn the leaves yellow instead of green, and weaken the growth. Established plants can handle ordinary drier conditions in summer, but not extended drought.
The Hummingbird Summersweet is an excellent low-maintenance shrub, which needs very little attention to stay attractive. It usually doesn’t have pest or disease problems, and deer don’t normally bother it. There is no need for fancy pruning, but if you want to keep it more compact and bushy, trim in late winter, before new growth begins. Don’t trim the new shoots, or you will stop it from flowering. Some gardeners like to give a light trim in late fall to remove the seed pods, but others find them decorative through the winter.
You could find the summersweet or pepper bush, Clethra alternifolia, growing anywhere from Maine to Florida and inland to Texas. It is often found along the coast, or around swamps and streams, growing in sandy soil. Native Americans used to make a tea from leaves that they dried in the smoke of a fire.
Wild plants can be as much as 8 feet tall, and they can be floppy. So gardeners needed a more compact form, but none existed. Then one day in 1977 Richard Feist was hiking around Hummingbird Lake, in Harris County, Georgia. Richard was a horticulture graduate working as an intern for Fred Galle, owner of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. When Richard saw a pepperbush just 3-feet tall growing in a ditch, he knew Fred would be interested. They moved some of it to Callaway Gardens, named it ‘Hummingbird’ and showed it around, building a lot of interest.
The Hummingbird Summersweet has received numerous awards, including from the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association in 1993, a Gold Medal Award from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1994, and the coveted Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK in 2012. Clearly it has ‘garden merit’ in spades. Our stock is limited and the popularity of this bush means we won’t have any available in a short time from now – so don’t wait.