August Perfume: Clethra alnifolia

I WISH YOU COULD VISIT ME IN AUGUST, for this is when Clethra alnifolia ‘Pink Spires’ is in bloom. What a romantic plant! Butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects are drawn to the sweet nectar of the shrub’s fluffy, candle-like flowers. The flowers offer a strong, but never-cloying scent that recalls honeysuckle, rose, clove, and heliotrope. You’ll find this North American native is extremely easy to grow:

Ideally, Clethra (or “Summer Sweet,” as it is commonly called) wants filtered light, abundant moisture, and slightly-acidic soil.   My plant, however, flourishes in full sun, alkaline soil, and dryness. Still, in five years’ time it has never failed to put on its pink-spired show from late-July through late-August.

Although the scent can be smelled some 100 feet away, you might want to locate Clethra near a porch or a frequently-walked path. There,  the butterflies and humming birds it attracts can be appreciated in summer, while its vase-like form will contribute winter interest.  The shrub  makes a pretty sight in my well-traveled Serpentine Garden, where it grows in a bed of Vinca minor.

Not an exuberant grower,  ‘Pink Spires’ has achieved for me a height and spread of not more than 4 feet after 5 years. I have never pruned the shrub.

Because it is drought-tolerant, pest- and disease-free, and a magnificent magnet for beneficial insects, I consider ‘Pink Spires’ a perfect perennial. The shrub is hardy in zones 4-8.

Oh. And then there is the scent. Folks, it’s a perfume you won’t believe.

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  1. stamperitis says:

    Would be nice but we are zone 3… I have planted a flower looking similar several times but after a couple years they die out. The butterflies and bees do enjoy them while they are there though.

  2. Tanya – although most sellers claim the shrub is hardy in zones 4-8, others say zones 3-9. Consequently, you might be able to grow Clethra if you give it a location that receives full sun.

  3. Donna B. says:

    Oh it looks so wonderful! I’m not a fan of pink flowers, but something that smells so sweet? I may have to plant it near my kitchen window [which is also where the path that goes to the backyard!] so I can enjoy it! Sadly my front porch is flanked at the moment with a strand of Butterfly Bush [oh the swallowtails love it so ♥] and it’s very hot up there… hmm… but there is a more shady spot on the side… HMMM…
    Thank you Kevin, for adding yet another wonderful plant on my “YOU HAVE TO BUY THIS” list. ♥

  4. For those who don’t like pink blooms, there’s a white-blooming Clethra alnifolia ‘White Dove’ that still smells wonderful and ‘Hummingbird’ that’s more compact. It’s nicknamed Summersweet for its smell & definitely attracts pollinators 🙂

  5. Zone 6, eastern PA. I have a pink Clethra in a bit too much shade, I think, since it is many years old and it not thriving the way I think it should be. The location is beneath a large Pagoda Tree (Sophora japonica) and also in the shade of a two-story tall Burford Holly “bush”. Perhaps it is lacking in moisture due to mature plantings nearby sucking up too much water.

    Although the Clethra does produce blossoms every year, it does not seem vigorous or properly placed. I am tempted to move it.

    The fragrance is lovely and the closeup views of the flowers are charming. I noticed the previous year’s dried blossoms persist until the following spring, which is when I prune them off during clean up of winter debris. I do favor using native plants as a boost to beleagured bee populations.

  6. It does have an AMAZING scent! Mine is an ivory color–love the pink one you showed us. Do you deadhead yours in the fall or spring?

  7. Dreama Todd says:

    I have looking for pink or white flowers to plant for late summer bloom. I was having diffcultly finding anything to fit the bill. Thanks for tip I will be trying this.

  8. Thanks for the tip! I’ve been looking for something for our bees during this bloom period when there is a general dirth in the nectar flow and before the goldenrod is in full swing.

  9. Great year for Clethra, the smell is heaven and the bees love it!

  10. Paula in Oh says:

    These are beautiful. Are they deer resistant?

  11. Peggy Delson- Rini says:

    I enjoy Garden for the House and look forward to each new issue. Thank you for bringing such joy yo my life. Regarding clethra since I have “resident deer” in my yard I have the same question asked by Paula – are they deer resistant and if not how can clethra be protected from deer.

    Peggy D.

  12. Deborah B says:

    I have several clethra in a wet area in our front yard near the road, and they’re all in bloom right now. I’m not a fan of that cloyingly strong scent but yes, it’s popular with bees. My favorite cultivar is Ruby Spice.

  13. My Ruby Spice looks very healthy but still no signs of bloom. It’s already Aug 12th? Is there anything I can do?

  14. Hi Arlene – Any chance you pruned your Clethra during late spring or early summer — and thus removed the flower buds? Otherwise, I can’t imagine why the shrub isn’t blooming for you.

  15. Thank you, Kevin,

    I am going to try Clethra in my garden next year after your recommendation.

    Right now I have large clumps of Turtlehead in full bloom, full of bees and Hummingbirds (from time to time – they usually are on a migration route). These tall, bog plants seem to enjoy a similar environment to the Clethra. I planted them right in front of the eaves-trough’s downspouts, where they thrive, and where anything else seemed to drown. Hardy and very disease resistant, they are well worth a try if you do not have any in your garden. The pink flowers do look like little turtle heads. Fun watching the bees climb into the “mouths”.

  16. ‘ Breakfast ‘ RECORD

  17. Kevin it was a pleasure meeting you and visiting your beautiful gardens yesterday. Happy it was August and I had the opportunity to see and smell the Clethra! Best of luck with your new Venture and with the Deer! Can’t wait to try some of your recipes….

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