Carolina allspice, Sweetshrub

June 1, 2022

But oh! For the woods, the flowers

Of Natural, sweet perfume,

The heartening, summer showers

And the smiling shrubs in bloom,…

            -Claude McKay

English naturalist Mark Catesby (1683-1749) is credited with introducing Calycanthus floridus, Carolina allspice during his colonial explorations. His Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, was the first published work of the flora and fauna from these locations. Two large folio volumes with 220 personally engraved and individually hand-colored plates with descriptions were published between 1729 and 1747. In plate 46 he illustrated the Carolina allspice along with a cedar waxwing.

historic illustration of green leaves and bird
Catesby’s 1726 illustration of Calycanthus floridus (Sweetshrub)

The dark-reddish/brown, flowers are 2-4 -inches across, opening mid-May and continuing sporadically through June/July. These are curiously composed of many indistinguishable sepals and petals, or tepals, as we have seen with magnolia and water lily. On some plants, sometimes, these flowers emit fragrance variously recalling pineapple, strawberry or banana. Having evolved before bees and butterflies these are mainly pollinated by beetles which enter earlier unfurled flowers, picking up pollen in the process, ensuring cross-pollination when visiting multiple flowers. Those flowers successfully fertilized produce 2 – 2 1/2- inch long, urn-shaped capsules holding numerous dry, brown seeds.

green leaves and red flowers

Catesby found these during the time he was based out of Charleston, South Carolina stating that, “…they grow in the remote and hilly parts of Carolina, but no where among the Inhabitants.” Their native range in woodlands and stream-sides occurs from Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and southern Ohio, south to Mississippi and the Florida panhandle.

The leaves are 2 – 5-inches long, with an entire (smooth) margin, occurring opposite each other on the stem. The stem itself emits fragrance when bruised, with Catesby stating, “…The bark is very aromatic, and as odoriferous as cinnamon…”

green leaves

On a future visit to Mount Auburn, look for these ancient/odd-shaped flowers on Ash Avenue, Rosebay Avenue and Geranium Path, appearing today as they did in Catesby’s drawing, about three-hundred years ago. But, we cannot guarantee any cedar waxwing alongside them.

green leaves and yellow flower

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →


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