Sweet Pepper Bush (Clethra alnifolia) is the last shrub to bloom each summer, in mid to late August. But it is certainly close to first place when it comes to fragrance. Its alluring and far-reaching scent can’t be ignored and attracts a plethora of birds, bees and butterflies. It is also a shirt-tail cousin of blueberries and cranberries – not in the same Family, but in the same botanical Order. This gives it another claim to fame in the Pines. It definitely “belongs.”
The dense, slender spikes of flower blossoms begin to open at the bottom, working their way toward the top. This makes them broader at the base as they begin to bloom, and broader at the top when they are about to finish. After blooming ends, dry seeds form and persist well into the following year.
Its dark green alternate leaves, broad in the middle and pointed at each end, are easily identified even without the flowers. The leaves are parallel veins that branch out from the mid-vein (pinnate venation). The margin of the leaf is also finely toothed.
Sweet Pepper Bush is found around the edges of swamps, bogs, lakes and streams. This is an extremely handy place because when vigorously rubbed between two hands, it produces lather in water. Old timers knew it as “Soap Blossom,” and frequently used it when a little on-the-spot hygiene was needed. However, even if you don’t need sanitizing, the scent is heavenly.