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Mother Nature Monday: Cinnamon Clethra

The lower left loop of the double loop Memorial Trail is open again. This year I expect to see many things along that trail that I have missed badly over the past few years. There is one tree that is found along this stretch of trail that is so striking I feel it must be mentioned.

It is not a tall tree, but the bark of this beauty is extraordinary. Plus, it is unusual because it blooms in shady locations in late summer when few other shrubs are in bloom. Larger in all respects than common sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia ), Clethra acuminata, a sizable shrub or small understory tree, grows 8 to 12 feet tall and wide.

It is called White Alder, Cinnamon Clethra or Pepper Bush (Clethra acuminata). It flowers in the latter half of July and produces a seed capsule that is very hairy. The Pepper Bush name comes from the appearance of the raceme of small black capsules. These seed capsules stay attached to the small tree throughout the winter. In the early spring the tree is easier to notice because of those seed capsules and the stunning bark, which is distinct. It is thin and gray to reddish brown and constantly peeling, as if it was sunburned. It is one of the most beautiful barks I know. The layers of exfoliating bark reveal other colors beneath including cinnamon, which explains why it is often called Cinnamon Clethra.

In mid-summer the tiny flowers bloom along terminal spikes. They are very fragrant, thus the common name Summersweet. The flowers produce high quality nectar and attract numerous insects, including many native bees, butterflies and the honeybee. You may even find hummingbirds sipping from the blooms. The nectar is highly in demand since not many flowers are available to pollinators in the late summer.

The leaves turn golden in the autumn and the seed capsules mature. Those seeds are contained in dry, brown capsules and are a source of food for birds throughout the winter. the beauty of the tree can be seen during all four seasons. The trees located along the Memorial Loop Trail are unusually big and tall for their species. Many plant nurseries sell another, smaller kind of Clethra, Clethra alnifolia, which they call Summersweet. The most common one sold is called “Ruby Spice”.

The Cinnamon Clethra found growing along the trail is endemic to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The next time you hike up or down the lower left loop of the trail, keep your eyes open for this very special member of our forest understory.

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