By any name it's a sweet shrub
When I am not busy admonishing people for butchering trees or warning Fort Smithians about some impending plague or pestilence, I find myself in the position of having to make actual plant recommendations. Granted, these are far less frequent than sick tomato questions, but I enjoy - even if it's for a fleeting moment - not being the bearer of bad news to someone.
When the phones are especially busy in spring, I may not have my wits about me, and so I may recommend something boring like a holly or "Green Giant" arborvitae. But, on occasion, I feel inspired to come up with something off-the-wall to recommend for planting.
One of those less common plants is a shrub native to the Southeast: Eastern Sweetshrub. This somewhat tropical-looking, deciduous shrub gets about 8 feet tall and has mildly glossy leaves that look like they would make attractive greenery in a flower arrangement.
A University of Florida fact sheet I have on sweetshrub says it is "not particularly outstanding." Maybe so, but I like to think that its beauty is subtle like a fine wine. While it is not as obnoxious as Loropetalum, sweetshrub has a number of interesting characteristics that make it an excellent, albeit not outstanding, landscape plant that should be used more than it is.
Eastern Sweetshrub is an easy-to-grow native shrub that gets 6 to 9 feet tall. Its rarity in the landscape belies its suitability for our climate. There are few pests (none that I know of, actually) that bother this shrub and it tolerates our hot weather with ease.
While most plant tags say "sun to part shade" for sweetshrub, I've seen it at its happiest with some light afternoon shade and full morning sun. I suppose that applies to most living things in Arkansas that aren't named Bermuda grass. It will also grow just fine in light shade, but the plant will grow taller.
Plant sweetshrub in well-drained soil. It can tolerate some modest drought, but will do its best when it has ample water. That doesn't mean it's appropriate for boggy conditions, however.
The most common name for this plant in the literature is Eastern Sweetshrub, but it's also called Carolina Allspice, which is how I learned it. Another name used in the Carolinas is Sweet Betsy.
This is certainly one of those instances where common names can be confusing so if you are seeking out this plant, use its botanical name: Calycanthus floridus. It can be found in catalogues and from online merchants. This year, plant breeder Proven Winners has released its own take on the shrub with the cultivar "Aphrodite" so you can bet we will end up with it at retail outlets before long.
Its non-fussy growth requirements are a benefit, but the real point of interest is the plant's odor. Or, more accurately, odors. Leaves and stems of Calycanthus smell somewhat like camphor if crushed. The flowers, which bloom on old and new wood, smell more like a banana split with strawberry and pineapple toppings. Not every sweetshrub seedling grown will have a strong fragrance, so if this is important to you, buy a named selection.
Flowers are usually maroon, but also come in red and chartreuse. No authors have described blossoms as outstanding, but they are attractive and unique.
Due to its intriguing odor, sweetshrub should be planted as a specimen near patios and doorways. Sweetshrub is best appreciated up close and personal.
Sweetshrub has yellow fall color, but keep in mind you're not really growing it for its non-remarkable fall foliage.
All this may not sound like a ringing endorsement for a plant; however, Nature abounds with successful examples of thriving life forms like Cocker spaniels* that are not particularly outstanding, so that's hardly a good excuse to not try this scarcely seen plant in your landscape.
If you're looking for an easy-to-grow plant that takes Arkansas' heat, I am confident that Eastern Sweetshrub won't disappoint you. This is a plant even the most ardent plantkiller can grow.
*Not yours, of course. I'm sure it's fine. Really.
Sebastian County extension service agent Dustin Blakey is a fierce defender of trees. When he's not answering questions from distressed gardeners, he writes a monthly gardening column for this magazine.