Summersweet / Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra)
Very aptly named, this shrub will impress you with its sweet scent in the middle of summer when fewer fragrant plants are flowering. Flowers are white or pink spires that are highly attractive to bees, butterflies and other pollinators. They are most abundant on plants grown in full sun, but Summersweet can be found growing wild in many a shady location, so their adaptability should be put to good use if you have more wooded conditions.
Wetter soils are a not a problem, and happy plants in moist spots can sucker to form a colony, though they aren’t overly aggressive. Leaves turn bright yellow in fall and are late to re-appear in spring, so don’t worry if they take longer to wake-up in spring than other shrubs. Dwarf forms fit well under windows and in mixed perennial beds while taller forms are good back-of-the-border plants and accents. I always recommend them for wildlife gardens and rain gardens, and our display plant here has prospered for years with no maintenance.
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea)
Also named for sweetly fragrant flowers (though milder than Sumersweet), this shrub blooms in late spring with drooping white spires that draw a lot of pollinators. Fall is really the peak season of interest for Sweetspire, though, as they turn a brilliant medley of burgundy, maroon, scarlet, orange and gold. Young stems can also be a dark red in winter not unlike a redtwig Dogwood, and therefore stand out nicely against snow or a dark green backdrop. These, too, will sucker if happy, but are similarly not considered thuggish in their tenacity.
In fact, that trait makes for great soil stabilization on slopes or in swales where water rushes past in a rainstorm. Also helpful in rain gardens, Sweetspire only asks for full to part sun and non-swampy soil to grow well. I have seen many between the boulders on trails at Great Falls, happily blooming and turning beautiful colors in fall with what little soil, nutrients and water they get in their little rock pockets. A autumnal stunning display of Sweetspire backed by Bluestar (Amsonia) and Asters can be found in front of the capitol columns at the National Arboretum – it’s a gorgeous patchwork of colors with the red/burgundy Sweetspire, golden and russet Bluestar and purple Asters.
Eastern Ninebark (Physocarpus)
This is another of my favorite natives because of its multi-season interest and, in recent times, good range of foliage colors. Textured leaves come in shades of gold, reddish-copper, bronze-red and plum-burgundy, all of which develop brighter scarlet tones for fall. The name for Ninebark derives from the tendency for older stems to develop peeling bark – not as dramatic as that of a River Birch, but still a bit decorative for those who appreciate detail.
Flowers are domed ivory clusters in spring, and when pollinated they develop seed pods that turn bright red before aging to a dry brown. Growth habits on taller-growing varieties can be a bit wild and rangy, but a simple yearly trim will keep them more formal-looking if that’s what you prefer. Our display plant only gets one haircut a year and minimal care and thrives. This is another native I see amongst the rocks at Great Falls always looking good, even in high summer.
Bayberry / Waxmyrtle (Myrica or Morella)
Despite having “bay” in the name, you can find these shrubs a bit inland as well, though generally in faster-draining soils. They are more prevalent at the beach, though, where their tolerance for salt spray and growing in nearly pure sand earns them respect for tolerating harsh conditions. Like legumes, Bayberry can fix atmospheric nitrogen and can survive in impoverished soils (such as sand) with minimal fertilizer.
Both Northern and Southern Bayberry native ranges overlap in the mid-Atlantic, though neither is what I would consider reliably evergreen. Still, even after this past winter, plants I saw in the Flag Ponds Nature Park in Calvert County came through fairly unscathed and leafy. The highly aromatic foliage is unpalatable to deer, and birds enjoy the waxy berries which once were used to make bayberry candles. Bayberry is either male or female, however, so to get berries on the female plants you need at least one male in the vicinity; unfortunately, nurseries rarely know which one they have (or they have a mix), so it’s a bit of pot-luck as to whether a grouped planting will gift you with any berries.
Being a wild species and not a cultivar (save for one type of dwarf Southern Bayberry), height will also be pot-luck because the genes will be a mixed bag. Generally, though, nutrient-rich soils produce taller plants, and they stay fairly stunted or slow-growing at the beach.
by Miri Talabac, Behnke’s Woody Plants Buyer