Think You Can Identify This Plant? – February 2009

Photo/Illustration: Steve Aitken

If you know the genus and species of this month’s mystery plant, you could win a free one-year subscription to Fine Gardening . Send your entry, along with your complete mailing address, by February 28, 2009 to [email protected] . The winner will be chosen at random from all correct entries.

Calycanthus floridus
Photo/Illustration: Steve Aitken

Last month’s mystery plant was Calycanthus floridus, commonly known as Carolina allspice, common sweetshrub, or strawberry shrub. This deciduous shrub, native to the southeastern United States, has oval, dark green leaves and grows up to 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It prefers fertile, moist soil in full sun or partial shade and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9. In summertime, the strappy, dusky, dark red flowers steal the show with both their beauty and their strong fragrance often likened to strawberries, pineapples, and bananas. Roxie Mack of State Road, North Carolina, was chosen at random from all correct entries to receive a free one-year subscription to Fine Gardening. Congratulations, Roxie!

Here’s what eLetter subscribers have to say about Calycanthus floridus:

“Though I don’t have space for this handsome native shrub, I have long admired it.”
-Ethel Fried, West Hartford, Connecticut

“It is one of the native shrubs I would love to have in my yard! It has fragrant flowers, stems, and leaves! A great plant!”
-Lynn S. Pennett, Downingtown, Pennsylvania

“I’ve loved this shrub since I was a child, seeing it and smelling it in a friend’s yard!”
-Carolyn Malin, Max Meadows, Virginia

“This plant has a special meaning to me, it was my Mother’s favorite, and she is now deceased. She taught me about this flowering bush, and the history behind the fragrant flowers. Before perfume was widely used, women would put these flowers in the pocket of their dress, or perhaps in a handkerchief in the sleeve of their blouse, to have the fragrance on their person. I believe the fragrance was also used to mask odors from certain illnesses in times of epidemics, hence the song “ring-around-the-rosie-pocket-full-posie…” What a beautiful plant!”
-Jane E. Caruso, Columbus, Ohio

“This plant is one of my longtime, old-fashioned favorites. Down here we call it sweet shrub or Carolina allspice. If possible, purchase sweet shrub when it is blooming so that you can check for that wonderful fragrance, since not all of these plants are blessed with the sweet strawberry-banana-pineapple scent.”
-Betsy Humphries, Sumter, South Carolina

“This plant has a special place in my garden and heart as I’ve moved it from new home to home. My plant stock came from my great grandmother’s home place in the country of Upson County, Georgia. While I can’t confirm that my particular plant is of that specific species, it sure looks like it. The plant is pretty neat in that it has the flowering blossom seen in your photo and has an accompanying sweet aroma while in bloom. The smell really reminds me of my great-grandmother and grandmother when I was growing up and visiting them. Just seeing the photo brought back such nice memories from my childhood playing in the yard. I actually think the seed pod has unique appearance as well. Thanks for the flashback memory!”
-Tim Thornton, Marietta, Georgia

“My aunt told me years ago that twigs from the sweet bubbie bushes were used as toothbrushes! They smell so good and work well as a toothbrush-I tried them.”
-Carolyn West, Simi Valley, California

“I have one planted in my garden. What a lovely plant.”
-Jeanne J. Larsen, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

“I have grown this but I got rid of mine because I apparently had a poor performer. I’ve read that some plants have better fragrance than others, and mine was a disappointment.”
-Lucy Goszkowski, Annapolis, Maryland

“It was my favorite plant at my aunt’s farm and when we visited I ran for those strawberry-scented blooms just as soon as I got out of the car. Years later I found it in a garden catalog and put it into my garden in Ohio.”
-Marlene Simonetta, Akron, Ohio

“I am an assistant manager at a retail garden center and every spring we have several customers looking for this shrub that they remember from a grandmother’s yard, and they always describe the unique fragrance!”
-Chris Schmidt, Strasburg, Virginia

“Here in the central piedmont area of North Carolina it is also known as sweet bubby. The shrub is soooo fragrant in the spring and early summer. To me it smells like bananas.”
-Mari Maristany, Woodleaf, North Carolina

“We have two growing in our Zone 5 coastal Maine location! They are not as nicely fragrant as I thought they would be. Evidently, one should test-smell the specimen before purchasing since the fragrance is so variable. Mine smells sort of like vinegar!”
-Amy Campbell, Rockport, Maine

“I recognized this immediately! When I was a girl, my mother planted one of these in our yard, and I loved the fragrance!”
-Lesley Gladden, Owens Cross Roads, Alabama

“It was growing in my side yard when I bought my house 25 years ago and is still there and doing well.”
-Cynthia Eleazer, Florence, South Carolina

“The mystery plant for this month is truly my favorite shrub since I was 9 years old. The fragrance of the Carolina allspice is really amazing.”
-Susan Titus, Jamesville, New York

“I just planted the new hybrid ‘Venus’, which promises larger white flowers with exceptional fragrance. I’m hoping that the bright flowers will show up better in semi-shade, too.”
-Julie Finucane, Owosso, Michigan

“This nostalgic plant is called by us North Carolina southerners a sweet bubby bush! This delicious-smelling shrub always reminds me of my grandmother, as I learned to identify it as a small child in her yard.”
-Amanda S. Harwood; Faith, North Carolina

“As a child many years ago, I loved to sniff the spicy fragrance of the sweet Betsy plant outside our kitchen window. In my current home, I have three specimens: a wild native from a friend and the purchased cultivars ‘Bear Creek’ and yellow-blossomed ‘Athens’, all of which have that wonderful odor. I still consider the only name for this plant to be sweet Betsy, for that is what all us North Carolinians called it, then and now. Common names mentioned in books, Carolina allspice or sweetshrub or strawberry bush, don’t fit my tongue. If I can find the room, I intend to get ‘Venus’ also, that wonderful cross between C. chinensis × C. floridus ‘Athens’ with the big, white, fragrant blossoms. Thanks for featuring this wonderful native.”
-Julia Shields, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

“Underappreciated, old-timey plant. We have one that has been here “forever”…lovely fragrance and nice long lasting blooms.  I love some of the new varieties coming out, too.”
-John E. Webb II, Boones Mill, Virginia

“It was seen often in the yards of north Florida in days of my youth. I loved this shrub because of its smell. I put it in books, and anyplace else I could stash this plant (only the brownish red leathery parts.)”
-Norma Phillips, Palm Harbor, Florida

“This is a great shrub. It has lots of suckers, but boy are they worth it. I have the red and the white, both beauties.”
-Yolanta Bogdziewicz, Rocky Point, New York

“When I was a child it was one of my favorite shrubs in my parents’ North Carolina backyard. We called it sweet Betsy bush.”
-Mary Firestone, Lafayette, Indiana

“I remember this plant from my childhood and today I have several planted in my side yard.”
-Libby Brooks, North Wilkesboro, North Carolina

“I knew this plant growing up as sweet shrub. My father and I found it on an early spring walk, and he showed me the blossoms and how they have this wonderful fragrance. I have several planted at the edge of my backyard, and they are very drought tolerant here in suburban Atlanta.”
-Judy Garmon, Powder Springs, Georgia

“I have a friend who lives in the foothills whose yard is swarming with these shrubs, and the fragrance is divine!”
-Mrs. Rod Stanis, Duncan, South Carolina

“When I was a child in Louisville, Kentucky, my best friend had this shrub in her backyard. Her mother told her that when she was a girl they would wrap one of the fragrant blossoms, which smelled a bit like strawberry, in a handkerchief and take it to school with them. They would pull it out occasionally just to enjoy the sweet fragrance. What a nice idea.”
-Lynn Jones, Huntsville, Alabama

“I researched it during my “fragrance” phase but was unable to detect any fragrance at all. But the plant is nice.”
-Grace Peterson, Albany, Oregon

“A very nice shrub. I have seen it as far north as Ames, Iowa (in a very protected microenvironment.)”
-Ann Bublitz, Cumming, Iowa

“I remember growing up having this bush in our yard. One of the fond memories of my childhood in the 60s.”
-Shelby Brown, Cameron, North Carolina

“I planted one about twenty years ago and now have four, thanks to its tendency to sucker. I enjoy its fragrance and save some of the smaller twigs from pruning so I may enjoy it all year long.”
-Jeff Baker, Atglen, Pennsylvania

“I love this plant! I have propagated it from my Grandmother’s (I take a plant each time we move!) The J.C. Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University has crossed it with something to make the blooms larger. It’s a beauty!!”
-Sandra C. Brown, Hampstead, North Carolina

“I have this small tree growing in my back yard, outside a window where many small birds use it as a perch before liting on my nearby feeder. How nice to have it highlighted here!”
-Linda Wilk, Falling Waters, West Virginia

“I’ve loved this shrub for years. My grandmother used to call it a “sweet bubby bush” but I grew up calling it “sweet shrub. Some very nasty caterpillars love this bush and are full of stinging spikes. Ouch!”
-Cynthia van Laar, Greensboro, North Carolina

“I look forward to the wonderful fragrance at bloom season each year with this one but it’s just as valuable for clean, attractive foliage.”
-Lelia Caswell, Waycross Georgia

“It was pleasing to open your letter today and see one of my favorite shrubs, what we in the Catawba Valley of North Carolina call a “sweet bubby.” My sweet bubby came from my cousin’s home in Summerville, South Carolina. They transplanted it from our grandfather’s farm in Newton, North Carolina. Granddad died in 1946 and my aunt lived on the farm until her death in the 1980s. He dug it up then and I took a piece from him. This spring as I prepare the last spot in my backyard for a perennial garden, I will transfer this plant to a focal point there.”
-Joseph P. Hester, Claremont, North Carolina

“I used to work with these on a daily basis when I was a groundskeeper and really enjoyed the smell.”
-Jim Peterson, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“I have cuttings from my grandmother’s huge specimen growing in my back yard!”
-Marcy Hege, Cary, North Carolina

“I love the way these woody brown flowers smell late in the day when warmed by sunlight.”
-Dawn Pettinelli, Storrs, Connecticut

“I live in the mountains of western North Carolina and have been stopped on my daily walk by the beauty of these maroon flowers that show for a short time only. They are growing in the woods among pine, hickory, maple, and oak at 2,000′ elevation. The tree is about 10′ tall, slight in stature and multi-trunked. Thanks for featuring this tree.”
-Carol Hancock, Deep Gap, North Carolina

“The mystery plant is a favorite of mine! It’s a native of the eastern United States. The selected variety that’s sleeping in my garden is ‘Athens’ and it sports a yellow/green flower in the spring instead of the typical red. The flowers can have an extremely fruity fragrance but choose wisely. Even the leaves are fragrant-hence the name sweetshrub!”
-Susan Wall, Charlotte, North Carolina

“I have one, we call it a “bubby bush” or “sweet shrub.” We started it from the bush of my friend’s mother (who has since passed away) in Galax, Virginia. It has since been started in each place we have lived: Fairfax, Virginia; Upper Marlboro, Maryland; and now in the northern neck of Virginia. We love it.”
-Vicki White, White Stone, Virginia

“I first saw this plant in all its glory several years ago, in a full-size version in a friend’s backyard. As I entered the yard, I couldn’t believe the scent of strawberries that was coming from this spectacular bush. It was a few years later that I was happy to acquire a plant from our local land conservation plant sale. It blooms wonderfully in my shady Japanese garden, and delights visitors with its fragrance.
-Cynthia Lussier, Southampton, Massachusetts

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