A shrub with a sweet past

In one of the most unabashedly erotic passages from his Travels, the otherwise staid botanist William Bartram stumbled upon (read: stalked) a company of Cherokee maidens disporting along a stream bank, collecting strawberries.

A less disciplined reader might get swept up in Bartram’s florid 18th-century descriptions of the virgins’ stained lips and “gay and libertine” behavior. But when I read these stirring passages, my attention is focused, always, on his mention of the fragrant vegetation surrounding these nubile bathers: the “native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, Calycanthus.”

Virgins or no, I’ve carried a torch for Calycanthus floridus, or Carolina allspice, for years. I saw my first about a decade ago, plucked one of the big, papery seed pods and hoarded it in my dresser drawer until it shattered and the remains got stuck in my boxer shorts. (Perhaps I’ve said too much.)

Last summer, as I drove a friend around near Bat Cave, we spotted an allspice bush on a bank above a cascading stream. I steer toward things that interest me, and, torn between passion and reason, I headed straight for the shrub and nearly drove us to a plummeting death. But we had the windows down, and if worst had come to worst, a noseful of Carolina allspice scent and the blurred sight of its chocolate-brown blossoms would have carried us into the great hereafter in style.

One of my personal rules holds that the more common names a plant bears, the more worthy of attention it becomes. By that measure, Carolina allspice is a world-beater. It’s also known as strawberry shrub, strawberry bush, bubby bush, bubby plant, sweetshrub and Sweet Betsy. The “allspice” allusion refers to the spicy fragrance of its crushed twigs, which are redolent more of camphor than of anything you’d want to cook. (The plant is said to be poisonous to livestock.)

Native to much of the eastern United States, Carolina allspice grows wild in the dappled shade of streambanks and low meadows. Its chief charm is its blossoms, which are maroon to brown and made up of straplike petals that smell like a blend of strawberries, pineapple and, to my inner senior citizen, prunes. In the home landscape it is adaptable, growing well in partial shade to full sun. It prefers loamy, deep soil but can smash through clay when it has to. It has glossy, opposite leaves and intensely fragrant blossoms that arise from the nodes between them. In fall, the leaves turn a luminous, buttery yellow before tumbling to the ground. It has practically no pests.

Why is it so rare in gardens? Partly because it has been stuck with that damning epithet “old-fashioned.” Tamed early and often by American settlers, Carolina allspice found a place beside the homestead long before more exotic selections arrived to squeeze it out.

As a purely aesthetic concern, it may be that the plant’s dark blossoms are a little too gothic for some people’s tastes. But I say, “Get over it, folks.” This plant fairly oozes virtues; maybe Carolina allspice needs a mention in Martha Stewart Living to get a little wind beneath its calyxes.

The plant’s only downside is the fact that it suckers vigorously and will grow exponentially wider with each passing year. Given space, this quality is less a curse than a blessing. Another problem is the sad fact that many nursery specimens are only weakly fragrant. You can avoid this by purchasing nursery stock when the plant is in bloom or by digging and replanting suckers from an existing, fragrant plant. I have neighbors in West Asheville with a knockout Carolina allspice shrub, and they’ll soon be getting a call from me and my spade.

Well-stocked local nurseries should have the plant available in several cultivars: “Michael Lindsey”, a maroon selection; “Katherine” and “Athens”, both of which boast chartreuse blossoms, and the reliably fragrant “Edith Wilder”.

We can’t bring back the Arcadian beauty of Bartram’s world, its frolicking stream-bank maidens, its “sylvan scene of primitive innocence.” But we can plant a little bit of it in our back yards and, in season, breathe the aroma of the sublime past.

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