Last week I was walking on the trail bordering Abbott’s Pond on the Morton Tract and was surprised by a lovely fragrance drifting on the breeze. Searching upwind to the perfume’s source I discovered a large colony of Sweet Pepper (Clethra alnifolia).
It has such a lovely, spicy scent that carries a long distance and just speaks of summer. People tend to think of a swamp as a foul smelly place when more often it is quite the opposite. I will admit that a tidal marsh at low tide during a period of atmospheric low pressure can be very sulphurious. This phenomenon was used by the first inhabitants of our peninsula to predict an approaching storm. The first corsage, and probably the last, that I ever tied used Turk’s-cap Lilies and Sweet Pepper. I’m sure it was a wreck but it was pronounced “beautiful” by the recipient. Sweet Pepper rarely gets a chance to bloom in our Tantrough farm forest since it is continually browsed to six or eight inches high by the resident deer herd.
Normally the shrubs form dense almost impenetrable colonies six to eight feet high in moist humus-rich soils. These thickets can be seen on the Lindale Tract trail bordering Abbott’s Pond. The thin, upright, tapering flower spikes appear on the tips of the major branches in early August. When in full bloom the scent is very pervasive filling the forest with its odor. Hordes of insects such as ants, beetles, wasps, and bumblebees feed on the abundant nectar and pollen. Sweet Pepper is a first class yard shrub because of its beauty and adaptability to many soil types. It can be lightly sheared immediately after blooming for shaping. Novel rose pink cultivars are also available from nursery stock catalogs, having seen both I prefer the pristine beauty of the normal white coloring. Another name for this plant is Summer Sweet. Look for this shrub growing near the wetlands of all of the Preserve properties.
In thinking more about sweet smelling plants found growing on Nature Preserve lands I was able to quickly come up with six (there are many others). In my opinion there isn’t any local shrub that can surpass the Pink (or Sweet) Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) in beauty or fragrance.
To me it signals the end of cold weather and that summer is truly just around the corner. The best stands on Nature Preserve lands occur in the Savage and Blair’s Pond Woods. The 5k trail is bordered in several places by the somewhat “leggy” shrubs often growing to a height of eight or nine feet.
It is a real treat to walk between them in April and May. The tubular flowers vary in shades from pale pink to deep rose, the upward curling stamens extending gracefully beyond the corolla tube.
The fragrance reminds me somewhat of carnations. A week after the corolla tubes fade and fall from the pink azalea, another tall, deciduous azalea blooms deeper the swamp where the soil is soggy. It too has very fragrant flowers that are white, sometimes slightly blushed with pink, and feel sticky to touch. This is the White Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum). It is worth getting your feet wet to visit.
Along the boardwalk trail that begins behind the old Abbott’s Mill, here and there among the other flowering shrubs of the swamp, grows the Sweet Spires (Itea virginica).
The flowers form little white bottlebrushes at the tip of each green twig. Some locals call the shrub “Tassel-white”. The smooth leaves are dark green (paler beneath) with a finely serrated edge arranged alternately along the branch. It has a nice sweet fragrance. Nurserymen have selected varieties of Itea that are shorter with a fuller branching form and more abundant flower clusters than the typical wild shrub. This is more desirable in the landscape planting. Several of the local nurseries have it in stock in spring or it can always be ordered from specialty nursery catalogs. These shrubs look at home beside a garden water feature but once established will grow happily in drier situations as well.
Still another sweetly scented flowering shrub has the accurately descriptive name of Swamp Sweet Bells (Leucothoe racemosa).
This is the last of these shrubby plants that I learned to identify. The individual white “bells” hang downward from the rachis of each flower exactly as bells would.
The six to eight foot shrubs grow with their roots wet directly at the edge or in shallow water near streams, ponds, and pools, either in full sun or shade. Bumblebees seem to be the primary pollinator of sweet bells and crawl from flower to flower, occasionally stopping to transfer pollen grains into the special basket of hooked hairs at the knee of the third pair of legs. This is carried back to its hive as food for the larvae.
One special memory that I have from many decades ago occurred annually in late spring. Automobiles did not have climate control in those days. Indeed on the first vehicle that I owned, a 1951 Chevrolet, even the passenger compartment heater was a pay-extra option. At the change of season in the fall, it was necessary to get out, lift the hood, and open a water valve on the engine to allow the heater to warm up...just barely. The majority of rural roads were dirt so travel on them was at speeds of 35 mph, or less, with the windows fully down on hot sunny days. As we cruised these dirt roads on the way to visit this relative or that neighbor, suddenly Father would brake and pull off on the shoulder near some wooded stream or swamp. For a few moments we siblings were confused as Father made his way into the swamp, returning shortly with a branch of Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) in full bloom.
Sweetbay has the most lovely scent to me of all the swamp plants that I have discussed. This branch was carefully carried home to be enjoyed for several days in our kitchen. Sweetbay magnolia gets its name from the leaves which can be dried and used for cooking in exactly the same manner as culinary bay leaves. The bark of the twigs is spicy too and we chewed on them as a convenient trailside thirst quencher and breath refresher. Sweetbay is universally present around all of the watercourses and ponds of the Nature Preserve. Both Abbott’s and Blair’s pond have large specimens overhanging the water surface that are best seen close up from canoe or kayak.
They attain the size of a small trees with multiple trunks and have glossy, oval, semi-evergreen leaves that are whitened on the underside. These finally fall completely later in mid-winter. The flowers are large with waxy ivory-white petals and unmistakable fragrance. Following petal drop, scarlet fruits emerge from cone-like structures that are relished by birds and small mammals. This tree is frequently used as an ornamental and adapts quite well to drier lawn and garden conditions if well-watered until established.
So take your camera, and cell phone, grab the kids, dog(s) on the leash and enjoy
your park. Get outside for some of the best, most effective free therapy in the world.