Trees: Peanut Butter Tree
Moving into our home on Wistaria Drive in NE Portland, our new neighbor, Steve Settlemier, grabbed us. “You have a strange flowering tree in your back yard. It’s beautiful perfume fills the entire block near the end of August each summer.” Since it was May when we moved in, it took a few months to figure out what Steve was talking about.
The leaves of the tree in the center of our back yard – or back hill is more appropriate – were heart-shaped and smelled strange. When we rubbed the leaves between our fingers, the leaf and our fingers smelled distinctly like peanut butter. Real peanuts are legumes and grow in the ground, but these leaves smell so much like Skippy PB, we immediately called it the Peanut Butter Tree.
Months later, when we got a whiff of the blossoms, it became apparent what our neighbor was talking about. Steve smelled the fragrant flowers, which are late summertime magnets for hummingbirds, butterflies and insects. The flowers are delicate clusters of slender, tube-shaped white petals that dance above the canopy of grey-green leaves. The blossoms turn various shades of cream and pink and white and, as Billy Crystal might remark, “They smell marvelous.”
Our other side neighbors, the Pryhar sisters, told us that the tree was called a Clerodendrum. I repeated what I thought I heard after them: clerodendron. “No,” said Sherry Pryhar. “Not like rhododenDRON, but clerodenDRUM, like the percussion instrument!” So now I knew. Whatever the pronunciation, it smells great.
The Settlemeirs and the Pryhars are no longer neighbors, but the new neighbors, the Butlers and Petersons, are equally enchanted with the smell.
Every year the Mother of All Relays, Hood to Coast, is held in the Portland Metro Area on the third weekend in August. Like clockwork the Hood to Coasters arrive just in time to smell the Peanut Butter Tree’s heavenly aroma at its peak. We host a carb-loading dinner and without fail, someone asks what is that great fragrance in the back yard.
The word Clerodendrum comes from the Greek words klero (fate) and dendron (tree), however, the Pryhar sisters are right, the last four letters are d-r-u-m. The tree species comes from the Far East, native to China and Japan. In those countries the plant is most likely to be shrub or small tree, clipped to ornamental size for easier maintenance. The shrubs blossom in last summer, with showy fruit and “malodorous” leaves. On one website they say that when the leaves are bruised, they produce a unique aroma reminiscent of peanut butter. The tree also goes by the names Harlequin Glorybower and the Butterfly Bush. 
It is easy to love these trees for many reasons. One is that although the leaves tend to fall early in autumn, the blossoms continue to change well past Thanksgiving and into Christmas season. The flowers transform into small bright blue fruits and each fruit is surrounded by a bright red, fleshy calyx.
Another reason to love the trees is for the birds they attract. We have seen the Peanut Butter Trees full of Cedar Waxwing, Varied Thrush, Rufus-sided Towhee and lots of other species. The Ruby-Throated and Anna’s Hummingbirds are perhaps its biggest fans, as they arrive by the droves, when August arrives.
Many websites have posts which complain that the tree has tubular suckers, which are invasive and terrible for their yards. Yes, the Clerodendrum in our yard has tubers, however, one of the tubers has grown to be larger than the mother tree and she sits majestically above her parent. The other small suckers can easily be snipped, though they are persistent. All hearty gardeners with trusty clippers are up for the challenge. And who wouldn’t be, with a tree that offers so much pleasure year around.