Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's Blooming: Sweet Betsy, also known as Carolina Allspice

We've been getting tons of rain, and before each big storm, the humidity has been just awful.
There is one reward in the swampy weather: the smell from these bushes is really fantastic.
Some people call this plant Carolina Allspice. My dad and, ironically, all of my Carolina cousins, call it Sweet Betsy. Either way I think that the Latin name, Calycanthus floridus, sounds particularly nice when said by someone with a southern accent.
The smell given off by these flowers is really unusual, kind of a cross between blueberries, bubble gum and cantelope. The blooms actually look like tiny pieces of sculpture, carved out of wood. The odor is powerful; sometimes my neighbors want to know what it is and come from next door to find out. But it is not overpowering. Some days, if the humidity is low, I can't smell it at all. It seems to come in waves, but not permeate the air.
I've been told by pollination researchers that the red color combined with the strong odor probably attract flies to pollinate this one. This inspired me to plant it next to the trash cans and the recycling bins in our yard. Other than flies, the wildlife seems to ignore it in my yard, but I've seen warblers nest in big ones growing down south, especially in more rural areas.
Even without the wildlife value, this is a great urban plant for warm weather areas of the south like DC. Sends out suckers, which you can dig and give to friends or trim and mow to keep the bush's size in check. In my yard it gets about five to six feet, although I've seen it reach seven or eight feet in more southerly places where the soil was full of red clay. Will make a hedgerow if allowed to do grow unchecked. The thick lush leaves, which disappear in the winter, shade out all the weeds below, so this is a good one for the non-gardener as well.
See some more fantastic close up photos here.

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