July 24, 2010


If only I could send the delicate spicy scent of my blooming summersweet over the internet.  I'd post it here and you could take it in, sniffing your screen and getting intoxicated on the aroma.

It's not cloyingly sweet like lilacs or overpowering like some other flowering shrubs.  It's a constant surprise.  It catches you every now and then, and you stop.  What's that?  aaaah.  Then you walk on, or wander over to the deck, and again you stop.... what's that?  Again, aaaah.  It's the clethra, tickling the air.

You have to know it's the nearby clethra, otherwise you wouldn't really catch where the delicate scent is coming from.  Have you ever gotten a sweet smell on the breeze and wondered what it was?  Couldn't identify it?  Knew you knew it, but couldn't place it?

Well, we need a Shazam for that.
You iPhone users know there is an app called Shazam that identifies song titles when you hold the phone up to any music that is playing.  It boggles the mind.  But it works surprisingly accurately, returning the song, the artist and a map pinpointing the nearest music store to buy a copy.

Can you imagine it?  You hold your iPhone up in the air near where a lovely scent is wafting, and .... shazam ... you get common name, cultivar, an image of the plant and the nearest garden center that sells it in a 10 mile radius of your zip code.
It could work.  There are many garden apps on iTunes but I found them to be weak, just inventories of plants with some images and stock advice like "needs well drained soil", which is about as unhelpful as "water if needed".

But until the one billiionth iPhone app is created and it identifies flowering scent... or until you buy a monitor with the ability to transmit fragrance, you are stuck looking at my pictures of the two kinds of summersweet I grow, and hearing me go on about their heady presence in the air around my gardens.

In my garden: I planted two clethra 'Ruby Spice' plants that I bought before they were in bloom.  They are supposed to have pink candles, but only one does, the other is white.  Mislabeled?  Reversion?  Here's the lone pink shrub:
It's not really pink, but kind of a cinnamon rose color.

The other clethra in my garden is 'Hummingbird', and that is supposed to have white candles and it does.  That's the photo at the top of this post.

One caution about clethra: their season is high summer, blooming in July, with nice green foliage, a pleasant loosely mounded shape, and that awesome fragrance.  But they are rubble in spring.  They are very late to leaf out, later than anything else.  And while the gardens come awake, fill in and and start to bloom, clethra just schlumps there, brown and dead looking with last year's tattered gray flower spikes hanging on droopily.  I've almost pulled them out each spring.

But oh, when summer comes, they redeem themselves.

Hmmm, after I posted this I came across an article from earlier in the month where twitterers sent in ideas for apps they wished existed, and lots of them suggested Shazam apps to identify many things we wish we recognized... including one that would take a picture of a plant and tell you if it's a weed or not!  Creative genius abounds.


  1. Ooooooh, I wish that I could smell this, lovely to having something smelly in July. I think that I need a clethra (I'll just close my eyes in the spring)!

  2. I have one of those pink cletheras too. It doesn't get enough sun, water etc. It does have light pink candles.

    That smell is amazing. I did the "what is that" sniff just yesterday.

    I can't wait for smelavision.

  3. Brilliant! I think I would like an app where I could point the phone at a spot in the garden and it would tell me which of my favourite plants would thrive in that spot. No more slumping plants flopping about in despair at their new abode. :)

  4. Deborah, if you plant clethra put it somewhere that will hide them in spring, but allow them to be smelled nearby. By the way, clethra really likes damp, and mine are in kind of a dry sunny place. They do ok, but they are really streamside woodland plants.

    Lisa, "smellavison" --- love it!

    Garden Ms. S, everyone has such great ideas for apps... and just when we think they're silly or far-fetched, someone develops one!

  5. Apple would make a fortune off that app! Fragrance is a wonderful part of the garden. A plant with a great smell is definitely worth planting. I have often caught a pleasant whiff on the air and wondered where it was coming from.

  6. Your clethra look so much better than mine which suffered a lot of winter die back and are struggling in spite of the rain we've had. I miss their sweet scent.

  7. Deborah, I'm not a fan of strong fragrance, and I took some lilacs out last year. But these sweetshrubs are so delicate!

    Joene, it's too bad about your clethra. They do look ratty sometimes, and especially after winter, but luckily mine have recovered and filled in nicely.

  8. I'm a big fan of Clethra too. No cultivars yet, just wild Clethra. It's nice to have a shrub that blooms so enthusiastically in midsummer.

  9. Sweet bay, I've seen wild clethra in the woods by streams here too, and it gets huge! And what a fragrance as you're walking in the woods.


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