I have always admired Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), a deciduous shrub that flowers in the summer. This is such a beautiful plant I don’t know why other people don’t grow it more often. Native to the southeast region, Carolina allspice grows 5 to 8 feet tall, is deer resistant, and has no major pests and/or diseases.
The green leaves are relatively large for such a small bush. The mahogany red flowers bloom all summer long. Pollinated by beetles, the 2-inch flowers look like a cross between a star magnolia (outer strap-shaped petals) and a lotus (curved inner petals with a central, raised button). In the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow.
These are understory shrubs meaning that they prefer to grow under the shade of tree canopy. Mine is under mulberry trees, or rather weeds, so it receives partial sun. They are well branched and respond well to pruning. They do not seem to be fussy about the soil other than wanting well drained soil.
Since 2016, my cultivar ‘Aphrodite’ has performed well and is in full bloom this month. The flowers are redder than the species and are supposed to smell like apples. I don’t detect this outside but if I were to cut them and bring them inside, the heat of the house seems to make them more fragrant.
The flowers can be cut for arrangements or for water bowls. When it was young, the flowers did not have a scent but I had read that young plants do not always have a fragrance. Apparently this attribute comes with maturity. The flower scent varies with plant so the other cultivars below may have a slightly different fragrance although they are all pleasant.
The leaves, bark and root are equally fragrant but more like camphor. If you crush the leaves or scratch the bark, there is a pleasant, almost lemony, camphor scent which reminds me of a friend who would put eucalyptus branches in her car for the heat to release the pleasant scent.
Mark Catesby, an English botanist who traveled the New World is credited with introducing the shrub during his colonial explorations. He said the bark was as “odoriferous as cinnamon” although I think the scent is more like a cross between lemon and camphor. The dried flowers, leaves, and branches can be used for potpourris.
Carolina allspice is a great shrub for the Washington DC metro area. I recommend ‘Aphrodite’ but there are other cultivars on the market as well such as:
Athens: yellow chartreuse flowers
Burgundy Spice: burgundy colored flowers and leaves
Venus: white flowers and is more compact
Hartlage Wine: red blossoms with small yellow markings and larger at 12 feet.
Look for this at your local garden center and add one or two to your garden. You will be pleasantly surprised!