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Gardening 101: Sweetshrub

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Gardening 101: Sweetshrub

August 18, 2022

Sweetshrub: Calycanthus 

If you are thinking that there must be more to informal hedging than hydrangeas, here is a shrub that is worth your attention. Calycanthus, with its healthy foliage and striking flowers, is strangely underused in American and European gardens. Its most desirable cultivars and hybrids are a result of genetic advances in the last few decades on the original American species mixed with Chinese native Calycanthus chinensis. All versions are supremely easygoing but Calycanthus x ‘Aphrodite’, pictured in this story, is the hybrid preferred by garden designers—with good reason: they need their plants, and gardens, to succeed.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

Above: Named after the goddess of beauty, Calycanthus x ‘Aphrodite’ is Greek in every part of its name, kalyx being the word for calyx, and anthos meaning flower.

Calycanthus is a genus of three main species, one of which is Chinese, with the other two native to the American Northeast and Northwest. The latter, western one (Calycanthus occidentalis) is tall and rangey, and a bit out of control in gardens, but its flowers are a good red. The Chinese one (C. chinensis) has the largest flowers, and the progeny between the two is arguably the ideal. This is Calycanthus x ‘Aphrodite’.

Above: ‘Aphrodite’ in the garden of designer James Alexander-Sinclair, someone who is known for his style and verve.

This hybrid deserves to be grown more, and, for that matter, the white hybrid Calycanthus ‘Venus’, a mix of the three species mentioned above. The eastern species, Calycanthus floridus (Carolina allspice) was for years the most garden-friendly of these shrubs before genetic tinkering began, and it is found in the American South, as the common name suggests, and north as far as the top of New York where it meets Canada. It will not thrive beyond Missouri. However—’Aphrodite’ does thrive across the States.

Cheat Sheet

  •  A low-maintenance deciduous shrub of about 10 feet in height and width, it’s happy growing in any aspect, in any soil, in sun or shade.
  • Scented flowers, aromatic bark and leaves, with varying opinions on exactly what these smells are. C. floridus and C. orientalis were used by Native Americans for medicine; an essential oil is derived from distilled flowers of calycanthus. The seeds, encased in pods, are toxic to humans.
  • Long flowering season from late spring and into late summer; in fall, the plant’s shiny foliage with felted undersides, turn a good yellow.

Keep It Alive

  •  Eminently easy-going but like most plants, calycanthus objects to deep shade and requires good drainage (in soil that is ideally moist). A sheltered position, on the other hand, is non-negotiable.
  • None of the calycanthus species are of much interest to hungry insects
  • Hardy to USDA zones 5-9.
Above: Calycanthus is pollinated by beetles. The seeds, toxic to humans, are eaten by mammals and birds.

For more on flowering shrubs, see:

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