plant of the week

Japanese Clethra

Clethra barbinervis

By Kate Bryant November 17, 2011

This photo doesn’t show the foliage off as it should but take my word for it, the leaves simply glow!

I am totally smitten with the fall color of Clethra barbinervis this autumn. But since hardly anyone grows it, I don’t get to see it very often, outside my own garden and a few clients in whose gardens I’ve planted it over the years.

Clethra barbinervis – also known as Japanese clethra – is a large shrub or small tree reaching about 12-20 feet tall, with a fairly upright form. The leaves are a soft chartreuse green in spring that looks incredible paired with rusty orange and terra cotta. In early summer, it produces hefty, cream-colored spires of spicily-scented flowers that remind me of gooseneck loosestrife. Come fall, the foliage shifts from springy green to a luminous yellow, apricot, orange and coral before dropping. And the tree even has great winter interest, with peeling, cinnamon-colored bark and a a structure of branches that droops most attractively, a bit like dogwood branches.

Clethra barbinervis prefers rich, well-drained soil and shade from the hot afternoon sun. It is definitely not a drought-tolerant tree, so it’s best in a light woodland environment, or on the east side of a house. You’ll know if you’ve placed it in too hot or dry a spot, because the margins of the leaves will crinkle up in protest in July and August. Take that as a sign to move it to a cooler, damper spot in the garden.

But find the right spot for it and your autumns will light up with the most delicious glow of foliar sunshine!


Check Plant Lust
It can sometimes be found at local retail nurseries including Portland Nursery and Dennis’ Seven Dees

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