The intense fragrance of the sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) was even more intense today, with the air thick and still. The small, sweet-smelling white flowers, with five petals, are borne on a raceme.
Sweet pepperbush is a native shrub that grows from Maine to Florida on river floodplains, streambanks, and wetland edges. I find it likes sandy soils and doesn't like its feet wet all the time, so more commonly occurs higher up on the shoreline. It forms a thicket, and in this spot grows in a band along the upper banks of the Lamprey River. Sweet pepperbush grows to 6 to 9 feet tall and has a rounded, well shrubby, growth form.
Its name, also called summer sweet or white alder, comes from its sweet fragrance and its peppercorn-like fruit. The fruit especially resembles a black peppercorn after it dries. The "dry, dehiscent, five-valved capsules" persist well into winter and through to the next growing season. The fruit capsules suddenly open (in the fall) and release their seeds, thus the term dehiscent (gotta love the botanical terms).
The leaves are also unique. Somewhat wedge-shaped, widest toward the tip, but then narrows again to a point. The leaf is serrated or toothed from the middle to the tip and untoothed at the base.
If you are looking for a native shrub to revegetate a shoreline or to plant around a lakeside cabin, this is a great choice. The butterflies and bees will appreciate the sweet-smelling and long-blooming sweet pepperbush in your yard.