The Sweetest Shrub

The flower of Calycanthus floridus in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The tulip-like flower of Calycanthus floridus (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

When I first saw the curious flower of native Calycanthus floridus, I wondered what it could possibly be. Part prehistoric tulip, part feminine fringe, the abundant burgundy blossoms lined the branches like rows of fluttering eyelashes. As I went in for a closer look, a sweet scent reminiscent of strawberries subtly enveloped me in its delicate embrace. Now my interest was truly piqued, and I realized that not much time would pass before one of these unusual shrubs became part of my landscape as well.

Calycanthus floridus 'Athens' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Calycanthus floridus ‘Athens’ (photo: South Coast Gardens)

Calycanthus floridus, also known as Carolina allspice or sweetshrub, is native to Eastern North America, from Virginia to Florida. It grows happily in average soil, full sun to part shade, from zones 5-9 (the flowers tend to brown on the edges in full sun, and the plant seems to grow taller in partly shaded locations). This is a shrub capable of growing to 10 feet under optimum conditions, so be prepared to give it some room to spread out. However, if you want to plant one in a garden setting, simply prune back after blooming and it will easily stay more compact. Be forewarned that Calycanthus floridus may sucker, so you might need to occasionally snip back a few wandering branches.

The tropical foliage of Calycanthus in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The tropical foliage of Calycanthus (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Although I grow my specimens in garden beds, sweetshrub is quite capable of standing on its own. It tends to be well proportioned and lush from the ground up, and the foliage is a glossy dark green with an attractive oval shape up to 6 inches long. Both the foliage and flower offer a level of olfactory delight; the leaves smell spicy when brushed while the flowers range in fragrance intensity (you may want to experience in person before purchasing). The generous size of the leaves gives it a tropical presence in colder climate borders, and once fall arrives the foliage often turns an attractive golden yellow. The flowers also become ornamental as they evolve into cinnamon hued, urn shaped fruits that last through the winter months.

Exotic blossoms of Calycanthus hybrid 'Venus' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Exotic blossoms of Calycanthus hybrid ‘Venus’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

In my zone 5 garden, Calycanthus floridus blooms from May through July, depending on rainfall (during hot drought periods it may stop temporarily), making it a perfect long blooming addition to the landscape. After experimenting with two Calycanthus floridus (one in part shade and one in full sun), both with great success, I decided to add a third member to the family; a dramatic Calycanthus hybrid (a cross between Calycanthus chinensis, C. floridus and C. occidentalis) called ‘Venus’. As the name implies, Venus is a gorgeous shrub producing large, magnolia-like flowers with hints of yellow and purple in the center, while offering the same ambrosial foliage as its cousin. Purchased from Broken Arrow Nursery ( several years ago, this plant has become a favorite in my gardens as it happily coexists with perennials, even ones that tend to get a little too affectionate.

Calycanthus hybrid 'Hartlage Wine' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Stunning blossom of Calycanthus hybrid ‘Hartlage Wine’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Like many other plants in the world, there are still a few Calycanthus cvs. that I lust for, and intend to introduce to my clan in the near future. One is Calycanthus floridus ‘Athens’, which produces spiky, tulip-like flowers similar to its namesake.  Unlike the common sweetshrub, Athens displays a pale chartreuse blossom that is quite dramatic in a garden setting. The other sweetshrub I can’t live without is the Calycanthus hybrid ‘Hartlage Wine’, which I encountered twice this year during local garden visits (also available at Broken Arrow Nursery). Like Venus, Hartlage Wine has exotic merlot blossoms possessing a fruity melon fragrance, enhanced with the same lavish foliage of its ancestors. No matter which shrub you choose, sweetshrub is sure to become one of the most cherished members of your plant family as well~


  1. The flowers are so pretty! Very cool

  2. Hi, we planted one of these last summer. Now I am waiting anxiously for it to awaken. Should it be showing signs of life by now or is it just one of those slower to do so? We are afraid it didn’t make it.

    • Hi Becky, You don’t mention what zone you’re in, but I assume it’s colder … I’m in zone 5 Connecticut, and there is no sign of life yet from most of my shrubs as we had a very cold winter and spring. The easiest way to tell if a shrub or tree is alive is to gently bend a branch. If it’s dry and snaps off, it’s dead. If it bends, the plant is alive. Most shrubs in my climate start to show signs of life by early May. I wish you the best, you will love your Calycanthus once it starts to bloom!

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