Those who know me well know that my passion for unique plants often leans towards the coniferous end of the plant world. While I admit that conifers are exciting, offering bold textures, unique colors and interesting bark, my appreciation for deciduous and broadleaf plants is of equal veneration. No doubt the rare and sometimes obscure grab my attention though. Recalling what Mark Hunter, a friend and owner of Hunter Landscape Design, once said to me, “Bob, last month you picked a plant that no one has ever heard of. Where did you find it? Did you have it air lifted out of Tibet only to have it land in your garden center?” Guilty of admiring the unique, passionate and appreciative of all types of plants, I digress and pull to the forefront a native plant for this month’s topic. The often overlooked, but always eager to please…its Calycanthus floridus.
Assets for this plant run deep. Often when you are backed into a corner of finding a shade tolerant plant that is also deer resistant the options seem limited. People try to force part sun/part shade plants into equations while sorting through the ambiguity of the amount of sunlight they actually have. Calycanthus floridus goes by many common names. Carolina Allspice, common Sweetshrub, Strawberry-shrub and Spicebush are only a few of its colloquial agnomens. Native to the southeastern part of the United States (Virginia to Florida), Carolina Allspice was introduced in the early 1700’s. Exquisite maroon flowers are borne in May and last into the summer months. When fully opened the fragrance has been reminiscent of an almost strawberry-like fragrance, hence one of its common names Strawberry-shrub. The flowers are carried at the ends of leafy branchlets and the foliage is aromatic when bruised. This native’s flowers are followed, in the fall, by brown, urn-shaped capsules which persist well into the winter. One of the easier plants to establish, adapting to most soils, Sweetshrub prefers moist, loamy soils. It seems that most plants would prefer moist, well drained soils; however most will not tolerate the clay and shale soils that we are blessed with here in this part of New Jersey. That being said, Calycanthus has proven itself time and again in not only our soils but many other types as well. This deciduous shrub has dark green foliage in the spring and summer with uncelebrated yellow hues. Other noteworthy characteristics though are its resistance to disease and insect problems and its flexibility in landscape design. Consider using Spicebush as a shrub border or specimen. Last summer a friend of mine wrapped his outdoor barbeque pit area with this shrub creating an outdoor living room. At night, sitting around his manageable camp fire, we could smell strawberry and pineapple scents all the while protected from on lookers next door to him. At maturity heights of 6-10 feet tall and wide should be expected. The “hardiness” of the plant is zones 4-9.
On to the cultivars worth seeking out! Calycanthus f. ‘Margarita’ is a yellow flowering selection named after Margarita Cline of Georgia. ‘Michael Lindsey’ flowers a maroon-chestnut color which has a clove-like scent. The fall color markings of this plant are much better than the species. Brighter, more consistent yellow markings are the norm here. A side note; the species’ bark has reportedly been used as a spice, although not considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). Calycanthus, said to be toxic to livestock because of toxic alkaloids in the fruit supports my conclusion that it is this that deters our white-tailed deer from eating this plant. At least for now! One final one to seek out is Calycanthus x ‘Venus’. A cross between C. chinensis x C. floridus ‘Athens’ and C. chinensis x C. occidentalis, this one is spectacular. Developed at NC State University by Dr. Thomas Rainey, ‘Venus’ has large ivory-yellow buds that open into huge magnolia-like, white flowers with yellow and purple markings. The scent of this flower opened likens itself to the aromas of strawberries and melons. Sounds like a white wine description. Released in 2003, ‘Venus’ is very choice, very rare and as of today very expensive. A must have for the garden connoisseur.
It has been my experience that Carolina Allspice performs admirably in shade while withstanding deer browsing. That said, given the limitations that are available to garden consumers trying to satisfy these two avenues, this plant should not be one by default but rather an exciting choice with multi-seasonal interest. Fragrance, flowers, fruit and leaf color should be enough to entice most anyone.