How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Coastal Pepperbush

If you’re looking for a deciduous shrub that not only survives but thrives in sometimes harsh coastal conditions, then look no further than coastal pepperbush. This hardy perennial is low maintenance and produces beautiful blooms during the summer. Gardening expert Kelli Klein shares all you need to know about growing coastal pepperbush.

A white and blush-tinged panicle flower of coastal pepperbush shines in the sun amidst dense green foliage.

Contents

Coastal pepperbush is the unsung hero for coastal gardeners looking for a perennial shrub to plant along with flowers in sandy soils and coastal environments (it will even tolerate salt spray). Also known as coastal sweet pepperbush or summersweet, this North American native plant is an attractive ornamental for the garden. 

This deciduous shrub is perfect for borders and tolerates being shaped into a hedge. As a bonus, it also produces stunning flowers that attract many pollinators! As the flowers die back, they will form small seed pods resembling peppercorns, which act as a food source for small mammals. 

Plant Overview

Coastal Pepperbush Plant Overview
Plant Type Perennial
Family Clethraceae
Genus Clethra
Species Clethra alnifolia
Native Area North America
Exposure Partial sun
Height 5-10 feet tall and wide
Watering Requirements Prefers to remain moist
Pests & Diseases No major pest or disease
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Sandy
Soil pH Acidic

What Is Coastal Pepperbush?

This perennial shrub is native to swampy woodlands, wet marshes, stream banks, and seashores. As its name would suggest, this species often grows in sandy soils along the coast. The native habitat of pepperbush includes southern Nova Scotia and the northeastern coasts of the United States to the Gulf.  

This deciduous shrub produces fragrant white flowers that bloom throughout the summer. The blooms also produce nectar, which attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. The flowers die back to reveal dry brown capsules which contain the seeds. These capsules are slightly similar to peppercorns, where the name “pepperbush” comes from. Although this plant is not toxic, it offers more ornamental than culinary value. 

History

Close-up of a Coastal Pepperbush with flowers almost open. This is a tall deciduous shrub with large oval green leaves with serrated edges. The plant produces erect inflorescences of white flowers.
This shrub is becoming a landscaping favorite despite its late-season leafing.

Coastal pepperbush is gaining popularity as a landscaping plant, but some gardeners find it challenging since it tends to leaf out later in the season. It can, however, add interest to a mixed garden and help provide blooms just around the time that early spring bloomers begin to peter out.

The fact that it forms sizable clumps in its native habitat makes it a great filler or backdrop for large, previously uncultivated landscape areas. Its recent popularity has resulted in the cultivars, ‘September Beauty’ and ‘Ruby Spice.’ Most pepperbush varieties have white flowers, but ‘Ruby Spice’ showcases beautiful pink flowers. 

Native Area

Close-up of a bee pollinating the flower inflorescences of Clethra alnifolia. The bee is a flying insect with a fluffy body with black and yellow stripes. Clethra alnifolia is an attractive shrub with dark green, large, oval-shaped foliage and vertical white clusters of small, star-shaped flowers.
This shrub is native to North America and thrives in wet areas, making it a great choice for erosion control around ponds.

As mentioned above and as its name would suggest, coastal pepperbush is native to coastal areas in North America. More specifically, its native area includes the coasts of Nova Scotia and Maine, south to Florida, and west to Texas.

You can also find it in swampy woodlands, wet marshes, stream banks, and seashores. This makes it an excellent border plant for a backyard pond to help prevent erosion. 

Characteristics

Close-up of the flower inflorescence of Clethra alnifolia. The flower inflorescence is elongated, erect, composed of many white tubular flowers that open into a star shape with prominent stamens from the centers. The leaves are oval, dark green, with serrated edges.
This deciduous shrub features tall, upright clusters of white flowers followed by brown pods.

This is a tall, many-branched deciduous shrub with upright clusters of white flowers. Its oval-toothed leaves turn orange or yellow in the fall just before they drop for the winter. As the flowers fade, brown pods resembling peppercorns appear on the plant through the winter and act as forage for some small animals. 

Uses

Close-up of a flowering shrub Clethra alnifolia Ruby Spice in a garden. It is a deciduous shrub with dark green, oval-shaped leaves with serrated edges. The leaves are arranged alternately on the stem. The plant produces fragrant, bottle-brush-like flower spikes. These thorns are covered with numerous small tubular flowers in bright ruby pink.
While not toxic, Clethra alnifolia is primarily cultivated for its ornamental appeal, especially as a well-pruned border plant.

It handles pruning and shaping very well, making it a great border plant. Its later bloom time makes it great for providing a pop of color when earlier season blooms are beginning to fade. It provides interest all season long until the winter when it drops its leaves and enters dormancy. 

Where To Buy

If you live in a coastal area, you can find this shrub at a local nursery. Outside of the coast, it hasn’t gained popularity just yet! If you don’t have any luck, check out online nurseries that supply other trees/shrubs. You can also find pepperbush seeds online. However, it’s much easier to start with an established plant. 

Planting

Close-up of Clethra seedlings against a blurred green background. The seedling is small, has an upright woody stem and four oval dark green leaves with serrated edges.
To successfully plant pepperbush, choose either spring or early fall.

Once you’ve obtained your coastal pepperbush, you probably wonder how and when to plant it. Two times of the year are optimal for planting pepperbush. Plant in spring or early fall.

If you live in a warmer climate, it is easier to plant in the fall as the weather is cooling off to spare your pepperbush from suffering through a sweltering summer during its first year. If you live in a milder climate, planting in the spring is fine. The main goal is to establish your pepperbush before winter frosts arrive, so plant it at least six weeks before your first frost. 

How to Grow

Pepperbush is relatively easy to grow but has a few specific requirements. It tolerates pruning and edging, which makes it perfect for a privacy hedge. 

Light

Close-up of Clethra alnifolia shrub branches in a sunny garden. The plant has large oval green leaves with serrated edges and attractive delicate inflorescences. The inflorescences are elongated, consisting of many creamy white tubular flowers.
For optimal growth, provide the plant with full sun.

Coastal pepperbush does best in full sun but tolerates partial shade conditions. They will benefit from afternoon shade in hot climates or in regions with prolonged periods above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

You still want to be sure that your pepperbush receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day, but the hours do not need to be consecutive. This means it can receive 3 hours of the morning sun, shade during the hottest part of the day, and then 3 hours of the evening sun. In ideal temperatures, pepperbush does best in dappled sun conditions. 

Water

Close-up of a young Clethra fargesii plant covered in water drops. It is a shrub with upright stems covered with oval bright green leaves with serrated edges.
It thrives in consistently moist, non-waterlogged soil, tolerating brief drought or flooding once established.

If you provide plenty of water, Pepperbush grows quite large and even puts out suckers to remove and replant elsewhere. This shrub does best when it is provided with consistently moist but not waterlogged soil.

Although pepperbush does not prefer to dry out between waterings, it can handle brief drought and/or flooding periods once established. Mulching during hot and dry periods will also help the soil retain moisture. 

Soil

Close-up of a man's hand with a handful of soil in the garden, against a blurred green background. The soil is crumbly, loose, dark brown.
Naturally found in damp, sandy coastal soils, pepperbush prefers consistent moisture and acidic conditions.

Coastal pepperbush grows naturally in poorly drained, consistently moist soils and can thrive in sandy coastal conditions. Adding organic matter, compost, and mulching can help the soil maintain the consistent moisture that this shrub prefers.

Pepperbush also prefers acidic soil conditions, similar to that of blueberries, azaleas, and hydrangeas. If you need to alter the pH of your soil, you can add a soil acidifier to the planting site or purchase pre-acidified soil for acid-loving plants. The optimum pH is 4.5 for pepperbush.

Temperature and Humidity

Close-up of a blooming Summersweet clethra in a garden, against a blurred green background. The plant produces elongated, brush-like inflorescences that consist of white tubular flowers with star-shaped petals. Leaves are oval, smooth.
It’s adaptable to various sun conditions but can struggle in prolonged heat.

Coastal pepperbush is well suited for USDA growing zones 4-9, where it can survive temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter while the plant is dormant. These deciduous shrubs need a period of dormancy (also called chill hours) to profusely bloom during the following growing season. Their seeds require cold stratification to germinate as well. 

Conversely, they may struggle in the heat, and, as mentioned above, they do better when provided with more shade in hot climates. However, it can tolerate various sun conditions from full sun to almost complete shade.

This shrub will not accept a consistently hot and dry site. Spreading mulch around the root zone (not right at the tree’s base) and watering well during prolonged temperatures over 90 degrees will help. As a coastal plant, it prefers some humidity and moisture in the air but is quite adaptable and can survive without it. 

Fertilizing

Close-up of a blooming flower spike of sweet pepperbush. This erect flower inflorescence consists of many tubular white-pink flowers, with stamens projecting from the centers, creating a fluffy appearance.
In early spring, use slow-release fertilizer to promote growth and flowering.

In early spring, provide your pepperbush with a slow-release fertilizer. This will help the plant break dormancy and put on plenty of new growth and buds for future flowers.

This is also a great time to test the soil pH and see if it needs to be adjusted again for the upcoming growing season. You can also add a side dressing of organic matter or compost instead of fertilizer. 

Maintenance

Close-up of a flowering shrub Clethra alnifolia in a garden. The shrub is large, has vertical stems covered with large oval green leaves with serrated edges. The bush produces many long, upright clusters known as racemes. These white, fragrant flowers are star-shaped and densely clustered for a visually striking appearance. The flowers are shades of cream and ruby.
Prune pepperbush to control growth, remove damaged branches, and shape the shrub.

Pruning your pepperbush is not required, but it is recommended as it can grow vigorously and unruly quite quickly in optimal growing conditions. You’ll also want to prune to remove damaged, diseased, or dying branches.

Pepperbush can be pruned into a hedge if being used for a border. Ensure you also prune in spring to promote new growth and shape the shrub. 

Growing In Containers

Close-up of a flowering inflorescence of Clethra alnifolia. This bottlebrush-like flower spike is made up of many densely packed tube-shaped flowers that are creamy white in color.
For container growth, consider dwarf varieties like ‘Hummingbird’ that maintain a compact profile.

When growing in containers, add sand to the soil to mimic its natural habitat. The dwarf variety, ‘Hummingbird,’ is exceptionally well suited for containers. You will occasionally need to repot your pepperbush.

If you notice a lack of new growth and the roots have begun to swirl around the edges of the container, then it is time to repot. When repotting, choose a pot that is at least 2 inches larger in diameter and water consistently until the plant has settled into its new home. When it begins to put out new growth, this is a good sign that it is well established in the new container.  

Propagation

Close-up of young shoots of a Clethra alnifolia plant in a spring garden, against a blurred background. The leaves are small, oval-shaped, with finely serrated edges. The leaves are pale green with pinkish edges.
Start Clethra alnifolia from seeds that have been cold-stratified or overwintered in place, or use greenwood cuttings.

Coastal pepperbush can be started from seed planted in fall or spring. The seeds have a higher germination rate when given a period of cold stratification, so seeds planted in the fall and allowed to overwinter have a better germination rate.

Greenwood cuttings can be taken in early summer, dipped in rooting hormone, stuck into a pot of dirt, and allowed to form roots. Once roots have appeared and the cutting begins to put out new growth, you are ready to transplant it into its new home either in a container or in the ground. 

Common Problems

While this plant is relatively adaptable to various growing conditions, a few circumstances can cause issues to crop up. Read on to learn how to identify and remedy these issues before they become a larger problem. 

Lack of Flowers

Close-up of a young summersweet clethra without flowers. The plant has upright stems with large oval leaves. The leaves are green with serrated edges.
Insufficient flowering may result from inadequate sunlight.

A lack of flowering is linked to a lack of sunlight. As mentioned above, coastal pepperbush does best in partial sun but still needs about 6 hours of sunlight per day.

Monitor the planting site throughout the day if your pepperbush is not flowering. If you determine that it is getting less than 6 hours of sun per day, it is best to move it to a sunnier spot. 

Brown, Dry, Crispy Foliage 

Close-up of a summersweet clethra branch with withered and drooping leaves, against a blurred green background. The leaves are large, oval, serrated at the edges. They are reddish-brown, dry, drooping.
For non-seasonal browning, prune away dead foliage and water regularly to improve the plant’s health.

As mentioned above, coastal pepperbush prefers consistently moist soil. A lack of water can cause some growing problems.

Brown, dry, or crispy foliage is a sign that your pepperbush is suffering from a lack of water, especially during periods of extreme heat. Cut back any dead or damaged foliage, increase the water your plant is receiving each week, and the problem will be resolved.

One caveat, however: This is a deciduous plant that will drop its leaves every fall. If it’s autumn in your area, no amount of extra moisture will prevent your plant from losing its leaves, but that’s to be expected; it’ll create new ones in the spring.

Pests

One thing that makes coastal pepperbush an attractive choice for ornamental gardeners is the lack of pest issues. There are no major insect pests that plague pepperbush. However, deer have been known to munch on this deciduous shrub, but only if no other forage is available in the area. 

Diseases

Close-up of a Clethra alnifolia plant in a garden. It is a deciduous shrub with large oval green leaves. The leaves have finely serrated edges.
Excessive watering can result in fungal problems like root rot, leading to wilting and leaf drop.

Overwatering can lead to fungal issues like root rot. When your pepperbush is overwatered, the leaves will wilt and eventually drop. Root rot symptoms will appear as a soft, mushy stem, wilting, and rotten roots.

This type of rot is hard to recover from but can be remedied if fresh, white roots have not yet turned to mush. Cut back the rotted roots and replant into dry soil if growing in a container. If growing in the ground, allow the area to dry out before continuing to water. 

Final Thoughts

Coastal pepperbush is an excellent low-maintenance perennial shrub to add to your landscape, especially if you garden in challenging coastal environments with sandy and acidic soil. It can, however, adapt to various conditions as long as the basic needs mentioned above are met. Once established, this plant will add interest to your fall garden with its beautiful blooms for years to come. 

SHARE THIS POST
A hand cradles chokeberry branches adorned with leaves. Bunches of dark, ripe chokeberries nestle among the foliage, promising a burst of tart sweetness with every bite. In the backdrop, a blurred red fence adds a touch of contrasting color.

Shrubs

How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Chokeberry

Are you looking for an easy-to-grow native shrub with excellent fall color and wildlife value? Chokeberry has visual appeal throughout the growing season: showy white flowers in the spring, clusters of small fruits throughout the summer and fall, and beautiful late-season foliage. In this article, gardening enthusiast Liessa Bowen will discuss the proper care and maintenance of these interesting and useful shrubs.

a tree is loaded with round, ripe, yellow fruits and green foliage in a sunny garden.

Shrubs

14 Beautiful Edible Shrubs for Your Garden

Foodscaping has gained momentum in recent years as gardeners combine ornamental plants with edibles. Here, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares 14 beautiful edible shrubs that lay a foundation for your edible garden.

An arrangement of shrubs showcasing a variety of styles and colors. Among them, green, yellow, and red shrubs create a vivid and captivating visual display. In the background, a rich tapestry of towering trees completes the picturesque setting.

Shrubs

27 Low-Maintenance Shrubs That Thrive on Neglect

Are you looking for a great foundational or focal point in the garden that doesn’t need much attention to look its best? There are a number of different options to choose from, depending on your hardiness zone. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss has 27 great, low-maintenance shrubs to share.

american beautyberry

Shrubs

How to Plant, Grow and Care For American Beautyberry

Looking for a perennial shrub that is low maintenance, pollinator-friendly, wildlife-friendly, and interesting? As a new gardener or even seasoned landscaper, including shapely, fast-growing, prolific plants is a must, and the American beautyberry is one plant that can hold its own in the landscape. Interested in this overlooked landscape plant? Let gardening and flower expert Taylor Sievers share the benefits and care tips for the unique and beautiful American beautyberry.