Looking for a perfect early evening, late spring garden activity? Go smell a Calycanthus in flower. Inhaling the sweet, fruity scent of blooming Calycanthus will lower stress levels. Add a beverage of choice and life is pretty darn good.
What is Calycanthus? A lovely, underused, moderately sized, deciduous shrub native to the US and China. Rather ignored and underappreciated for a long time, it is now making a dent in the world of gardening. For that, thank thoughtful and possessed breeders for bringing new and interesting cultivars into the plant world.
Calycanthus was, more often than not, observed in southern areas of the US, but new cultivars are lighting up northern gardens as well. It is an adaptable shrub. Preferring a somewhat moist, partial sunny growing site, it does very well under almost any conditions after it is established. Take care to provide adequate water the first two years and it will reward the landscape with consistently moderate, slowly spreading growth. In full sun, the shrub form will be somewhat condensed and compacted. In full shade, the branching structure is open and loose. Successful pruning technique falls under a personal favorite – hack and whack. Calycanthus will respond well to any pruning style between light touch up and ground hugging severity. They flower on old wood so enjoy the early flowers and prune, as needed, after the first bloom flush has faded. Inhale deeply as you prune. The wood has a deliciously spicey fragrance.
Flowers initially appear in mid-spring often before the pretty, glossy leaves fully unfurl. Expect to see a light, floral rebloom through mid-summer. Bloom color and scent vary depending on breeding background and will range from white to yellow to deep red to brownish maroon. The strongest Calycanthus scent floats aloft in the afternoon. At their best, the flowers smell like a bowl of ripe fruit. Think strawberry, banana, and pineapple in a classy bowl. At their most interesting, the flowers give off a faintly vinegar odor. If purchasing for flower scent, choose a reliable and consistently scented cultivar e.g., “Athens,” “Big George,” “Edith Wilder,” and “Michael Lindsey.” If going after flower power only, any limits are self-imposed.
Calycanthus is an all-around satisfying landscape shrub. As a bonus, it is resistant to disease, insect, and deer pressures. While there are great developments in the breeding pipeline, do not overlook the existing species and cultivar types. There will be at least one or two that will be perfect for most garden areas. When choosing a species type for general landscape use, be sure to choose and purchase late in the day while the shrubs are in bloom. Doing so will minimize unpleasant sensory surprises.