At one time, Carolina allspice or sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) was a popular garden plant. This native shrub, which occurs naturally from Ohio to Florida, was prized for it dark, maroon-red, fragrant flowers that smell of banana bubblegum. It's an adaptable, easy to grow shrub with glossy, aromatic leaves that smell like camphor when crushed. You can still find it growing in old city neighborhoods, in alleyways and around old farm houses that date back the late mid to late eighteen hundreds.
You can get some idea about its historic popularity based on how often it is mentioned in books using Google's Ngram viewer. Pretty cool isn't it? I borrowed the idea from Joseph Tychonievich who used this device to chart the popularity of other garden plants. As you can see, the popularity of this shrub has been in decline for some time.
There is nothing sweet about Calycanthus chinensis, the Chinese wax shrub. It has never been a popular garden plant.
It's not fragrant and it's too large for most suburban gardens. There are not enough book citations for it to even register on Ngram. It was only recently described by a Chinese botanist in 1963 and did not make it west until after the Cultural Revolution when seed was distributed by the Shanghai Botanical Garden. Even today this plant is rare. You'd have to visit a botanical garden to see one or go to a specialty mail order nursery to buy one.
Calycanthus 'Hartlage Wine' is a cross between Calycanthus chinensis and our native Eastern sweetshrub - Calycanthus floridus. It was developed by Richard Hartlage while he was a student at North Carolina State University. Hartlage Wine was the first Calycanthus hybrid to be introduced.
A lot of people ask about the difference between Aphrodite and Hartlage Wine. The photograph below pretty much tells the story. The flowers of Aphrodite have a richer color, have wider petals (actually tepals: sepal-like petals) and have more yellow coloring in the center of the bloom. Aphrodite is also noted for having a nice fruity fragrance while Hartlage Wine not so much.
The most fragrant of these hybrids is Calycanthus 'Venus'. She has a wonderful sweet melon fragrance that is simply delicious. Her large, pure white flowers are adorned with a touch of red and yellow. This hybrid contains all three of the aforementioned species.
Most people have never heard of Calycanthus and thus, like other uncommon plant species, no one asks for them at the garden center and as a result they hard to sell.
With the advent of these new hybrids, Calycanthus certainly deserves a second look. Or perhaps, we new to look at these plants through a whole new lens. So if I told you I had a dwarf Magnolia, with fragrant, red flowers, that never got frosted in the spring, and that bloom all summer long would you be interested? If the answer is yes, I have one, but it's called Calycanthus 'Aphrodite'.