Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
The name says it all! Summer flowers and sweet fragrance. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators adore these flowers that start opening in mid-summer. Plants can be compact or tall and fit well into a mini meadow, mixed border or rain garden. Native to our area, they can be found in woods and have great tolerance for shade, though blooming will be best if they receive some direct sun (full sun is ok too). They aren’t a deer favorite and the leaves will turn yellow before dropping in autumn. We consider this to be one of our best shrubs for drawing pollinators!
Companion planting ideas: native ferns and sedges tolerant of some sun (with moist roots) would make a lovely underplanting – especially for the taller Summersweet varieties – and offset their textured foliage nicely and provide interest until the late-emerging leaves make an appearance. Native Fringed Bleeding-heart (Dicentra eximia) would also make a great accent with its blue-green ferny foliage and long bloom season; perennial Lobelia and Turtleheads add taller interest to draw bees and hummingbirds. For dramatic pairings, try one of the “black”-leaved European Elderberries or the bronze or yellow foliage of our native Ninebark varieties. A blue-needled Juniper (‘Grey Guardian’ is a nice shrubby native form) or blue-foliaged Fothergilla (variety ‘Blue Shadow’ is nice) gives a less jarring contrast if the soil isn’t too wet.
New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Delicate white flower clusters appear early to mid-summer and draw lots of small bees, butterflies and other insects (hummingbird food!). Plants are tougher than they look, tolerant of drought, nutrient-poor soils and partial shade. Roots can be substantial so try not to transplant them after putting them in. They combine very well with other meadow/prairie or woods-edge perennials to draw the maximum diversity of pollinators and provide summer color.
Companion planting ideas: As a nitrogen-fixer, the often nutrient-poor and sandy soils that New Jersey Tea can thrive in also support Bayberry, Sweetfern (a Bayberry cousin), Indigobush (Amorpha), Potentilla, Beach Plum, Virginia Rose and Yucca. All are native and create a good draw for wildlife and would make a nice mix of shrubs reminiscent of a seaside garden with multi-season interest and low maintenance.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
It’s flowers are more like ping-pong balls than buttons, but they still draw a lot of insect pollinators while open in summer. Plants are excellent for prospering in wet spots and in the wild can be found on the shores of ponds, in open wet woods and pockets of moisture between boulders. Fall color can occasionally be gorgeous but they are best used for rain gardens, mixed native borders and out-of-the-way parts of the garden where they can serve as a backdrop for shorter shrubs and perennials.
Companion planting ideas: Summersweet, Inkberry Holly, Witherod and Arrowwood Viburnums, Sweetspire, Redosier Dogwood, and Meadowsweet and Steeplebush (both Spireas) are all native shrubs that do well in the same conditions Buttonbush prospers in – full sun and soil that tends to stay evenly moist to wet. A mixture of these and various native perennials would create a lovely “wet meadow” or border to a natural water source (creek, stream or pond) that gives year-round interest and draws loads of pollinators and birds. Some of the plants sold as aquatic pond plants can be successfully grown in consistently damp soil and would work well alongside Buttonbush.
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer