Carolina sweet shrub is an early summer stunner


The lilacs and other spring-flowering trees may be finished blooming, but there’s still one shrub in our garden attracting a lot of attention these days.

It’s an import from the southeastern United States that’s covered right now with eye-catching red flowers.

Carolina sweet shrub (Calycanthus florida) is native to the American south from Florida to Virginia.

Both the leaves and the flowers of these shrubs, which are also known as allspice or strawberry bushes, have a sweet, fruity scent while the bark smells like camphor.

Most of them are hardy to at least zone 5, and they’ve done well in our Port garden for years.

The first sweet shrub we tried was ‘Michael Lindsey.’ It has shiny, dark green leaves and in the spring produces dozens and dozens of small, wine red blossoms that resemble jingle bells — they never open all the way to reveal the center of the flower.

They’re fragrant, although I find the scent to be mild.

They’re pleasant, although to me they smell more like citrus than strawberries.

My next acquisition was ‘Athens,’ a shorter selection with greenish yellow flowers.

It isn’t as vigorous as ‘Michael Lindsey’ and I didn’t find the flower color to be as interesting.

A few years later, however, hybrids of our native sweet shrubs and the larger-flowered plants from China hit the market.

Those are the plants catching the eye right now. ‘Hartlage Wine’ is covered with 3-inch cranberry-colored flowers that resemble star magnolia blossoms.

They lack the fragrance of the native American’s flowers, but they’re showy as all get out.

The unusual color really stands out among all of the white-flowered shrubs we see this time of year. The flowers last for weeks and bridge the period between the spring-flowering magnolias and lilacs and the later blossoming dogwoods.

The latest sweet shrub in our collection is ‘Venus,’ which is smaller than ‘Hartlage’ but with similar blossoms in white.

I made the mistake of planting this where the dogs could reach it, and one of them has decided it’s the tastiest thing she’s ever eaten.

So much for my plan to have an early season white flower to echo the later white hydrangea planted nearby.

Despite barricades, Kim gnawed both sweet shrubs to the ground, so this spring what was left of ‘Venus’ moved to the front garden.

To my surprise, the mauled transplants have flowers starting to open.

Sweet shrubs bloom in full sun to dappled shade.

They’re large plants, many maturing to thickets that are 9 feet tall and wide, although with pruning several of ours have stayed a more compact 5 feet tall and about 3 feet wide.

I prune the tallest shoots immediately after they finish flowering and dig out any runners in spring.         

Sweet shrubs are deer-resistant, and the ones we have in the front garden have been left untouched despite being loaded with flowers.

And although one of mine had some die-back this winter, it’s blooming in deep shade right now on the surviving branches and putting on lots of healthy new growth, which may produce flowers later this summer.

For gardeners with space for them, Carolina sweet shrub is a colorful addition to the early summer garden.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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