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Scents of the Season

On a warm, sunny May day, there are many wonderful fragrances in the air. May is the month of hundreds of blooming perennials, shrubs, and trees.  Wildflowers dot the ground in shady areas and old fashion perennials, such as iris and poppies bloom in the sun.

Often there is a fruity, spicy scent in the air in our backyard that sometimes mingles with the heavenly lilac and lily of the valley scents. The fragrance comes from an old shrub that we planted more than 35 years ago called Calycanthus floridus or sweet shrub. It is also known as Carolina allspice, strawberry shrub, pineapple shrub or colonial spicebush. Sweet shrub has many common names, all-alluding to the aromatic properties of its blooms, leaves, bark, twigs and roots.

When we planted it, it was just a small plant, but in our somewhat sandy,woodsy environment, this beautiful deciduous shrub has grown over the years to many clumps about 6’ high and has filled an area twice aswide. Every so often, we make root divisions to preserve this wonderfully fragrant parent shrub. Our sweet shrub suckers come from spreading roots that have vigorously grown to increase in width to form a magnificent thicket.

We love the wonderfully fruity scent produced by the unusual flowers. They are rusty red or burgundy and about 1-2 inches in size. The blossoms appear in quantities during the spring and sometimes intermittently thereafter throughout the summer. The leaves are oblong, about 4” long by 2” wide, and are rich deep green with lighter green underneath.  Soft and fuzzy to the touch, they turn bright golden yellow in autumn.

Calycanthus floridus is native to the moist woodlands of the southeastern United States, with a range that extends from Virginia, south to Florida, and west to Mississippi.  Sweet shrub is easy to grow in average soil and requires very little care.  This native is pest-free and usually adapts to most gardens.  They thrive in medium shade to bright sun and do best if in a moderately moist soil. Since our ground is quite sandy, we try to remember to water when there is a dry season.  This might only be a onetime long soak where the hose is left to run for several hours to really wet the soil all around and very deeply.

Our plant is part of a shady, woodland border where there are lily of the valley, May apples, bulbs, azaleas, dogwoods, magnolia, viburnums, and  other shade lovers.  It is often seen in the south growing near camelliaas they like similar conditions.  Sweet shrub is wonderful in natural areas and woodland gardens where it can sucker freely and assume its natural habit.

The lilac is usually as easy to grow and will grow in sun or part shade. Most of the lilacs in my garden are in semishade and do well.  They are usually full of blooms, but the shrubs in full sun are sturdier and often have many more large heavy booms. When adding a lilac to the garden, consider that you have an option with size, color, bloom time, and often fragrance. As I look at the bright green of the unfurling leaves of the lilac and the grapelike clusters of buds and blooms, I anticipate the joy of the bouquets of blooms and scent. We pick and pick them, filling vases all over the house. I always wish they bloomed for a longer time and look for the last bushes to bloom. That is why I suggest planting several varieties of lilacs in the landscape.

The smallest of lilacs are the Myers and  Miss Kim dwarf lilacs. They also bloom early in May. The common lilac orsyringe vulgaris is an upright shrub, often growing 8-15’ high, with extremely fragrant flowers. These old-fashioned favorites are at home in a border or as a centerpiece in a lawn or garden.  There are 100s of different kinds of lilac cultivars, with colors ranging from white and pink to many shades of blue, violet, lilac, purpleand magenta. At least one is a must in every garden.

I would sum up lilac culture by saying that the best soil is one that is on the sweet side or close to neutral and supplemented with compost or leaf mold. A good dressing of lime is in order in our acid soil.  (We have also listened to an old-timer who said to dump fireplace ash on the lilac.)  He also stressed that trimming or picking the blooming lilacs encourages better-shaped plants with an abundance of bloom the next season.

Remember, with all blooming shrubs, prune as the old blooms fade.

I have always enjoyed the short, but awesome bloom season of the iris and peony. They usually add color to the Memorial Day weekend. Iris were often called flags when I was a kid and I remember them lining the path at both the VFW and fire house where we often added pots of bright red geraniums. Peonies bloomed in both of my grandmother’s gardens and I loved their fragrance. Now many brides plan their weddings when there are peonies in bloom so they can have this fragrant, romantic flower in their bouquet.

Enjoy all the wonderful plants in bloom and drink deeply of the timeless fragrances of spring.

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