01 Sep Exciting New Plant Introduction from Jersey: ‘Burgundy Spice’ Has Everything Nice
“What are young women made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice, And such are young women made of.” The first time I heard the name of the plant Calycanthus ‘Burgundy Spice’ I was immediately reminded of Robert Southey’s words, English poet and historian (1774-1843). Carolina Allspice, common Sweetshrub or Strawberry-shrub, all common names for Calycanthus floridus, has long been one of those plants that has never been thrust to superstardom, and it should be! Spicebush and Sweet Bubby, other common names Calycanthus goes by, is a gorgeous native plant affording many positive attributes. Introduced in 1726 and easily found from Virginia to Florida, the listed cultivars in Michael Dirr’s biblical masterpiece ‘Manual of Woody Landscape Plants’ currently lists nine cultivars. However, ‘Burgundy Spice’ will no doubt soon be listed among the likes of other stellar performers, Calycanthus x raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’ and my “used to be” favorite ‘Michael Lindsey’.
A deciduous beauty, Spicebush grows six to ten feet tall and equally wide. The stems of common Sweetshrub are aromatic when bruised and it is “hardy” to zone 4. A dense, woody, somewhat rounded form may appear unkempt in its natural surroundings, however great breeding has afforded us more consistent candidates. Typical dark green foliage in the summer with yellow tones in the fall may not be enough to warrant one in your collection, however dark reddish brown, almost maroon flowers with a fruity fragrance, may be just enough to bring you to the “dark side” where plant enthusiasts play. Two-inch-wide flowers appear in May and June and flower on the current season’s growth and wood of the previous season. Complete with urn-shaped, leathery fruit in September and October, this is a plant ID characteristic in the winter months as well. Perhaps one of the most “trouble-free” plants you will ever come across, Sweet Bubby can be a welcome shrub border with virtually no serious pest or disease problems.
Sometimes reluctant to disclose my plant sources, Pleasant Run Nursery in Allentown, New Jersey has long been a source for us and I am proud to say they are all close friends as well. A nursery whose passion is focused on growing “the hard-to-find” and “cutting edge woody plants,” they can also grow the pedestrian lines as well as anyone. Calycanthus floridus ‘Burgundy Spice’ has been years in the making and is a direct result of the determination and prowess of Richard Hesselein and Daryl Kobesky. Richard, co-owner with his wife Heidi, and Daryl, the production manager for their facility, are all horticultural giants in the industry. My belief is that two prerequisites required to work for Pleasant Run Nursery are that their employees must be affable and possess a brilliant horticultural mind. During our hour long talk for this article, Richard Hesselein was proud to point out that his nursery is recognized as a New Jersey Sustainable Business, the first nursery enterprise to be recognized as such. Notable thresholds include waste reduction, waste reuse, energy efficiency and renewable energy to name a few.
‘Burgundy Spice’ is 15 years of hard work, pollination and collecting and selecting seed carefully over those years. Others have come before this effort, but none with “leaves that are a solid purple on top and a chalky purple underside,” Richard says. Additionally, smaller leaves and weaker attributes have been selectively removed to get to where ‘Burgundy Spice’ is today. It is these color markings that have me and others in the industry so excited. Quite simply, burgundy markings translate to dollars spent at the register in retail sales. Couple this with an outstanding flower and you can begin to understand the impact this cultivar should have on our industry. Star Roses and Plants has partnered with Pleasant Run Nursery to introduce this plant to the trade. The flower color has been described as simply “RED.” However, the day I saw the flower it was more picotee, with its color combination reminding me of Coreopsis x ‘Cosmic Eye’ (Big Bang Tickseed). That is to say, my eyes saw a more orange-yellow on the tips with a red interior. Hesselein was also quick to note that his Calycanthus would appreciate more sun to ensure the bright purple leaf markings. Typically, Carolina Allspice tolerates shade and is deer resistant too. My fellow colleague, friend and native plant extraordinaire, Eileen Ferrer, vouches for both of these attributes. The fall color is also remarkable touted as having vibrant shades of yellow and amber dancing through its leaves. And “the hardiness has been tested successfully into Vermont, zone 4 or 5,” Richard says.
As with any sensory perception, opinions vary. When I asked Richard what smell he gets from his soon to be famed plant, he described tropical fruit, both mango and papaya. Immediately stating that the scent of most flowers is stronger in the early morning and late afternoon typically. “Our individual chemistry of flavor and smell interpret these differently,” Richard says. Referencing Pawpaw, Asimina triloba, and the taste of its fruit, Hesselein also said, “some taste banana with a custard consistency, others don’t.”
‘Burgundy Spice’ is being offered in a #3 container size and rice hulls are used as “a container topdress to prevent airborne weed seeds from reaching the growing mix” (riceland.com). Another part of Pleasant Run Nursery’s commitment to environmental stewardship, they are effectively reducing their amounts of herbicides and pesticides. With a dozen beehives on their property, Pleasant Run’s team is always cognizant of their natural surroundings and the impact chemicals can have. Rice hulls are being used around their Hellebores and Epimediums because of their sensitivity to chemicals and around Hosta and Nepeta as their foliage has an ability to cover the tops of pots quickly. Rice hulls are a way to reduce drought stress and watering, control moss species such as liverwort and reduce hand-weeding, all while delivering an economical, earth friendly weed management.
‘Burgundy Spice’ was aptly named by Richard’s wife Heidi. Combining the purple/burgundy foliage with the sweet/spicy fragrance often associated with Spicebush, Heidi’s name is “spot on.” For those of you who don’t know, Heidi descends from horticultural royalty, the Flemer family and Princeton Nurseries. Mavericks in the industry, the Flemer family patented many improved shade tree selections, most notably the Princeton Elm, and numerous labor saving machines for the “green industry.”
The success rate for propagating ‘Burgundy Spice’ is nearly perfect at Pleasant Run. Furthermore, Hesselein states that Calycanthus in general are “tough as nails once they are rooted.” I interjected and said, “I have often thought that if you kill Calycanthus, perhaps you should consider another hobby,” a comment that made Richard laugh. Clearly being a 4th generation nurseryman with a degree in botany from Humboldt State University has given him the tools to selectively give us a great new plant. Together with Daryl Kobesky’s efforts they are bringing the world an exciting new plant that should put Calycanthus where it belongs, a problem solver for almost any landscape.