If I could send fragrance along with a blog post, this could be a one-sentence missive. All it would need to say is common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus): Smell it, love it, plant it.
Above: Common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)
One of two plants in my backyard just started to bloom, and the fruity fragrance of the flowers gathers outside the back door whenever the air is still. William Cullina provided an effective description of the fragrance in his Native Trees, Shrubs, & Vines (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). He summed it up as “a fruit salad perfume of strawberry, banana, mango, and peach guaranteed to get your stomach rumbling.”
While rich and wonderful, the fragrance is subtle. As gentle breezes buffet it in the garden, it can be strong one minute and gone the next. In my experience, the fragrance is most noticeable at night, when the wind has died and especially when there is some moisture in the air.
Native from Virginia to Florida and west to Ohio and Mississippi, Calycanthus floridus (pronounced cal-ee-KAN-thuss FLOOR-ih-dus) has collected quite an array of names through the years. Common names include Carolina allspice, eastern sweetshrub, strawberry blossom, pineapple shrub, Bubby blossom, sweet Bubby, and sweet Bettie. The common names allspice and spicebush (the later more often used for another native species, Lindera benzoin) probably refer to the fact that the foliage and wood have a camphor-like fragrance when bruised. By any name, the plants bear handsome glossy, dark green leaves that have prominent veins and turn yellowish in fall. They are simple, oval in shape, and are arranged opposite one another along the stems. Flowers are borne in the leaf axils along the stem.
One reason sweetshrub has been passed over in recent decades is because the flowers are not nearly as showy as the blooms of many more popular shrubs. (Another is surely our passion for acquiring rare plants from exotic locations.) The blooms, which are borne in abundance, are perhaps best described as curious or interesting rather than showy or beautiful, although their fragrance more than makes up for their subtle beauty. Each 1- to 2-inch-wide flower consists of many curving tepals (petals and sepals that look the same). Color ranges from red-brown to maroon. In our area, flowers begin to open in late April, with the main bloom in May. Flowers continue to open from June into July as long as the plant is actively growing. The plants bear flower buds on both last year’s and the current season’s growth.
In the Landscape
For best results, give sweetshrub a site with part sun to part shade. Although plants are native to woodlands, especially along streams and bottomlands, they tend to develop a rangy habit as branches stick out to capture any patches of sun that are available. Given more sun and a bit of pruning, they develop an attractive mound shape and range from 4 to 10 feet tall and up to 12 feet wide. Plants tend to be shorter in sunnier sites. Prune, as necessary, immediately after flowering. So far, I my plants have just needed to have wayward branches removed or cut back to encourage more branching. On older plants, remove older branches that begin to flower less by cutting them off at the base of the plant to make room for younger growth. The plants spread slowly by suckers, so new wood is always coming along. Let the plants form broad clumps, or use suckers for propagation by severing rooted stems and potting them up.
Like many of our native species, sweetshrub is easy to grow and adaptable. Plants are tough and seldom troubled by insects or disease. Rich, moist soil is best, but plants adapt to a range of soils including acid or alkaline soil. They tolerate fairly dry soil to moist, well-drained conditions.
I planted one sweetshrub in the wooded patch I am trying to create along the road, but the plants in the backyard are the ones I enjoy most—primarily because of their proximity to the house. The subtle character of the fragrance provides an valuable planting hint. Look for a suitable spot from a cultural standpoint, to be sure, but for maximum enjoyment find a site where you will have ample opportunity to enjoy the fragrance. Protection from wind is also important so that the scent does not disperse. A site near an outdoor sitting area or a frequently used walkway is ideal. Or plant a sweetshrub under a window that is often open in spring or next to a door.
Sweetshrubs also can be used as specimens, in shrub borders, along woodland edges, or in natural areas. My backyard sweetshrubs are planted in a mixed border with hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), ‘Little Henry’ Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), plus ‘Center Glow’ and ‘Dart’s Gold’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Of these, only the hydrangeas are non-native. The shrubs are underplanted densely with a weed-smothering mix of vigorous ground covers, including natives Persicaria virginiana ‘Painter’s Palette’ (sometimes called variegated jumpseed), Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’, and ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Plus, because more is nearly always better, I have added hellebores, hostas, and Epimedium rubrum.
Species or cultivar is the one other decision you will have to make. Fragrance varies from plant to plant, so if you are buying the species, try to purchase when the plants are in bloom so you can sniff before you buy. (Alas, this doesn’t work if you happen to be shopping on a windy day.) Consistent fragrance is one advantage of planting a cultivar, since all individual plants are genetically identical. Of course, I have taken the collector’s route and planted both the species and two cultivars. One is ‘Michael Lindsey’, which features red-brown, very fragrant flowers along with a dense, compact habit, dark glossy green leaves, and fairly effective yellow fall color. The other plant, ‘Venus’, is a complex hybrid with creamy white 3- to 4-inch, fragrant flowers. These may not be the last sweetshrubs I plant, though, because there are other cultivars to try and the fragrance is hard to resist.