Growing up in the northern part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens I was able to watch as deer populations expanded to an unprecedented level across my lifetime. A once dense thicket of shrub species that had adapted with scents and toxic alkaloids to defend themselves against deer were replaced with an abundance of deer-friendly plants like hostas, roses, daylilies, and hydrangeas. Though much of the understory started to be depleted in this area from development and deer, one shrub always seemed to grow abundantly throughout the wild untouched by the aforementioned expanding deer population. This shrub is known as Sweet pepperbush, summersweet, or is sometimes just referred to by its genus “Clethra”.
Sweet pepperbush is a deciduous shrub native to Eastern and Southern North America, spreading abundantly along bay shores and swampy banks. It blooms in the late summer into early fall and is one of the best pollinator attractors you can find as seen in the attached video. It’s bold sweet odor overwhelms the deer’s senses especially when it’s in bloom, sending your local deer elsewhere to find food.
This shrub is very adaptable and can grow in a range of conditions. It even handles sandy, salty, and acidic soils very well for those folks gardening along the shore or in the pines. It prefers part-shade but can handle full-sun as well. The key to keeping sweet pepperbush happy in your garden is to keep it wet, it will absolutely thrive in a rain garden. As with any plant, deer-resistant does not mean deer-proof. That being said, planting resistant plants in conjunction with other management practices such as repellents and fencing will give you the best chance in preventing excessive deer damage on your landscape.
Editor’s Note: R.J. Curcio is a Certified Associate Ecologist of the Ecological Society of America and general manager of Deer Guys®. For more information on Deer Guys® visit www.DeerGuysUSA.com