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Clethra alnifolia

Summersweet, Coastal sweet-pepperbush

Plant Details

Common Name: Summersweet, Coastal sweet-pepperbush
Family: Clethraceae (white alder family)
Mature Height: 5 - 10'
Sun Requirement: Sun, Sun to part shade
Moisture Requirement: Medium - moist, Moist
Flower Color: White, Blush, Pink
Bloom Time: Mid summer (July - August)

Clethra alnifolia summersweet
Clethra alnifolia summersweet
Clethra alnifolia summersweet
Clethra alnifolia summersweet

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Clethra is Greek for alder, as the leaves were thought to resemble alder leaves; alnifolia is Latin for ‘leaves resembling alder.’

Native Habitat

Swampy lowland areas, on stream banks, and along the seashore.

Garden Uses

Good addition to mixed hedges, rain gardens, and naturalized sun or shade areas, providing both late season blooms and autumn color. Any pruning should be done in late winter. Can tolerate dry areas once established.


A rounded, deciduous, densely branched shrub that enjoys moist soil and full sun to part shade, but tolerates shade. It can grow up to 8 ft tall and 6 feet wide in optimal conditions, where sandy soils are medium to wet. Its spicy, sweet flower scent led to the common name ‘sailors’ delight,’ as its scent often reached sailors before land was sighted.

Leaves and Stems

Leaves are 3 to 4 inches long, dark green, simple, serrated (toothed), oblong, and glossy in summer, changing to yellow shades in autumn. Leaves grow on stalks along stems that are multi-branching and erect, with exfoliating, thin, smooth brown to brown-gray bark.


Blooming in July and August, the white to light pink spires or racemes are 2 to 6 inches long, clustering at branch ends, with multiple, tiny, fragrant flowers that are showy en masse.


Dark brown seed capsules 1/8 inch in diameter contain tiny seeds, and often persist through winter.

Animal Associates

Attractive to birds, bees, and butterflies. Deer persistently browse the small shrubs we planted at the Native Garden.


Spreads by root suckers. Can also be propagated via cuttings, or clump or root division. Sow seed on moist sand.

Ethnobotanical Uses

Its flowers produce lather when crushed in water, so this plant is sometimes used for soap.

Garden Location

Library Garden (see garden map)


Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Native Plant Trust

Missouri Botanical Garden

Plant Profile by Kate O’Dell