August 7, 2020
Sweet pepperbush grows in the State Park and right in my yard too

Mary Reid Barrow

 Everything about the little shrub in the woods  at First Landing State Park seemed familiar earlier in the summer, from its green, serrated leaves to its few remaining sprigs of brown seed left over from the summer before.

 But I couldn’t place it for the life of me.

 Growing at the edge of the tree canopy along the park trail,  the shrub obviously was an old friend to this part of the park, but not a friend of mine. 

 What was this plant that seemed so familiar?

  A few weeks later, I saw that one or two small sprigs of white blooms had begun to form on the shrub, but I still didn’t recognize what I was seeing and I wracked my brain.  Here’s what one of those early blooms looked like in the park:

Finally, it  hit me, because even later, I saw the  same, only bigger,  spikes of white blooms appearing on a shrub in my own yard!   I recognized my old friend after all.  It  was Clethra, (Clethra alnifolia), one of the first natives shrubs I had planted in my garden:

 Though I had never seen Clethra in the wild before, I planted it after I had begun to learn about the importance of planting natives.  Clethra,  a resident of coastal Virginia, grows three to eight feet tall,  and its  sweet smelling  blooms attract nectar-loving insects.

One of Clethra’s  common names is sweet pepperbush.  When the little blooms go to fruit, they look like dried peppercorns.   Here is a photo of a sprig of dried fruit leftover from the year before that gives the pepperbush its common name:

 I can’t tell you how silly I felt not recognizing my own garden plant in the park setting!  At the same time I was pretty exciting to have it hit me in the face like that! Pretty clethra was in the park right down the way and here it is, right outside in my yard too.

 And that’s the way it should be everywhere.  What grows in the woods is what should be growing in residential areas.

This cicada killer wasp who obviously thinks my Clethra is as sweet as I do, proves the point.  It doesn’t know or care that there is a difference between a state park and a back yard.  All it knows is Clethra makes a sweet meal:


Do you have a favorite tree, a secret tree grove or neighborhood climbing tree that you love?  Let me know your stories about trees,  the critters who live in them and the insects that dine on them.  Send an email to



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