Friday, March 11, 2016

Meet the "Coastal Sweetpepperbush" -Clethraceae alnifolia & "Mountain Sweetpepperbush" - Clethraeceae acuminata

The Coastal Sweetpepperbush & Mountain Sweetpepperbush - Clethra alnifolia & Clethra acuminata are members of the very small Clethraceae (or Witch Alder) Family.  This family is made up of only about 75 species of which only 2  occur naturally in North America .  The Coastal Sweetpepperbush and the Mountain Sweetpepperbush are the only two members of the Clethraceae family, that are native to North America (though some research shows the possibility of a third that is found mostly in Cuba under a different name - Purdiaea).  Both are deciduous shrubs or small trees rarely reaching over 20 feet tall.  The trunk can occur as either a single or multi-leader with an erect upright habit.   The two are very similar in appearance with the main difference between the two being the distribution and habitat where they are found. The genus name originates from the Greek word Klethra which refers to the Alder in which the Sweetpepperbush resembles.

Image Citation: Karan A. Rawlins, University of Georgia,

Sweetpepperbush in general are most recognized by the combination of their coarsely toothed acuminate leaves, elongated raceme of white flowers and shredding/peeling bark.  The leaves are alternate, elliptic or lanceolate in shape and crowded towards the tips of the branches/twigs.  The leaves are dark green in color, hairless and are between 8-20 cm long and 5-9 cm wide.  The fruit is an ovoid three part capsule that is about 5 mm in diameter.  Each capsule matures in the Fall causing the fruit to split, releasing it's many seeds.  The flowers are bisexual, white in color and 6-8 mm in diameter each, occurring on narrowly elongated racemes 8-20 cm long.  The showy and fragrant flowers appear between July-August depending on the location.

Coastal Sweetpepperbush has a broader range and is found from Nova Scotia in the North to Southern Florida and Eastern Texas in the South. Coastal Sweetpepperbush is found in primarily pine-palmetto flat woods, swamp margins, dry woodlands, Atlantic White Cedar wetlands, generally below 200 meters.  

Image Citation: Karan A. Rawlins, University of Georgia,

Mountain Sweetpepperbush has a very limited natural range that runs only through the mountain ranges of Southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Tennessee, Northeastern South Carolina and the extreme North Eastern portion of Georgia. It is most often found in moist mountain forests between 500-1400 m.

Sweetpepperbush is an excellent problem free shrub that can tolerate many soil conditions and does not have any serious disease or insect issues.  It is recommended for hardiness zones 3-9 and is a known attractant for many types of butterflies.  It can be planted as a hedge, stand alone shrub, in rain gardens or for erosion control.  It is often marketed under the name Summersweet and can be propagated by cuttings.

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