The early arrival of spring-like weather in the southeast will have Sweet Shrub in bloom and providing a great scent to the woods of North Georgia. (Photo by Linda Lee)
By John Nelson
Not many things could be finer, here in Carolina, or anywhere in the southeast, as far as wonderful fragrance than Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus). We are having a rather early spring it seems, and this is a plant that is already beginning to unfold its marvelous flowers which can give off an amazingly sweet fragrance. A stand of these plans also known as Carolina allspice in your garden on a warm spring evening is something to invite your friends over for. For dessert.
This is a shrub that is native to the Southeast and is fairly common in many places from northern Virginia down through lower Mississippi.
It likes to grow in rich woods and often in the shade. Just about every part of this plant is fragrant: the bark, the leaves and, of course, the flowers. Funny thing is, the fragrance of Sweet shrubs can vary widely from plant to plant in a given population, and then even from season to season.
Its deciduous leaves are egg-shaped and somewhat pointed, usually scratchy above, and softly downy beneath, although this is variable too. The flowers, which are somewhat remindful of miniature magnolia blossoms, are typically maroon and reddish, sometimes varying to purple or even greenish. (In 1872, the famous Harvard botanist Asa Gray referred to the “purplish flowers” as “lurid.”
I guess it depends on your meaning of the word “lurid.”) In fact, the Sweet Shrub flowers fit into a syndrome that some of the botanists in my department are actively studying now: reddish-brown flowers, opening in the spring, that are heavily fragrant and which attract a number of different kinds of pollinators. (Paw-paw would be an example, and there are several species of Trillium that do this too.) After the flowers are finished, fruits are produced. These fruits are sort of odd: elongated and bag-like, they contain a good many smooth brown seeds which eventually dribble out of an opening at the end.
These plants are rather easy to grow, I think. There are several horticultural varieties, including at least one that has yellow blossoms. They like loamy soil and they do well in a bit of shade.
Back to the flowers though. The fragrance of the flowers has said to resemble strawberry, pineapple, ripe banana and even applesauce. Depending on the plant observed, the fresh flowers are so fragrant that they have been used commonly as a sachet for the linen drawer.
Tucked by a lady into an embroidered handkerchief or held alone, they made a wonderful nosegay in a refined society. Held even closer, perhaps slipped into - ahem - soft, skin-warmed areas near the neck, the flowers provide a marvelous counterpoint to the offending odors of the world and eventually bringing us the name “bubby rose” or “bubby bush” (or even - gasp! - “bosom bush”) to this old-time favorite.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information visit www.herbarium.org