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On Gardening: Granny’s sweetshrub now has the wow factor

April 9, 2018

   

Aphrodite is a cross between the California allspice and the Chinese wax plant.

The first time I saw the native sweetshrub I instantly fell in love with it, the small deep burgundy flowers and fragrance was an instant lure. I would see them at old homes and plant swaps but not so much in the marketplace.

It is known botanically as Calycanthus floridus and is native in more than 20 states in the Eastern United States, as far north as New York. In addition to the name sweetshrub, it is also called Carolina allspice and spicebush. Those names sound pretty marketable to me.

The western United States is not without its own version. The California allspice, Calycanthus occidentalis is somewhat similar, thinner petals and a little less fragrance. Both native versions, however, have been used in breeding to turn the sweetshrub world upside down.

The first is Hartlage Wine developed by North Carolina State University. My horticulture coordinator at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens planted one in our shade garden under the guise of sweetshrub a most pleasant surprise.

Last May as I was taking a walk to survey how things were progressing I felt as though I had found a treasure. Hartlage Wine was blooming, and I instantly recognized it as sweetshrub but ‘Holy Wow’ the flowers were larger than tennis balls and yielded a pleasant fragrance.

Hartlage Wine was created by an NC State grad student Richard Hartlage making a cross with the native Calycanthus floridus and the Chinese wax plant one Calycanthus chinensis. A long bloom period and fall yellow color make this plant have award winner written all over it and needs to be in woodland gardens everywhere.

North Carolina State University, Mills River, NC also made an outstanding cross called Aphrodite. It is a hybrid between the California allspice and the Chinese wax plant. Aphrodite has even more fragrance, a longer bloom period and flowers showing a little yellow in the center.

If fragrance is your goal however than look for Venus. Venus also a N.C. State product is a cross between all three, C. floridus, C. occidentalis and C. chinensis. The result is a flower that is white, magnolia-like with all of the sepals or tepals opened and bringing you under the ‘spell of the smell’ that has been described as the scent of strawberries and melons.

These shrubs are cold hardy from zones 5-9 and perform best in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. The more sun the moisture will be needed. At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, we had ours planted under tall pines with high shifting light. The results couldn’t be more perfect.

Expect yours to reach 5 to 10 feet tall and as wide depending on variety. As true to the native species expect then to offer root suckers. Remove these to create a more picturesque structure. The yellow fall color is a great addition to the woodland garden where it will stand out from quite a distance. Many will be ecstatic to know these are not on the deer menu!

The sweetshrub of our grandparent’s era was nice, but these are better and so much showier. What’s extra special is that now they are available in garden centers. I hope you will plant some and make some fragrant memories for your children.

 

 


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