Spicing Things Up

Carolina Allspice, or Sweetshrub, is one of our most asked-about plants at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. I can think of at least three reasons why people notice it.

carolina-alspice-close-up_loFirst, it’s an old-fashioned shrub (but not as familiar as forsythia or lilac), so its not too likely to be found at nurseries today. Next, the specimens along the edge of the patio are large, covered with dark glossy leaves. My shrub identification book lists a mature height of nine feet, and these are easily that tall. But the blossoms are probably the shrub’s most noticeable feature — at least in the spring.

Their shape and color are both out-of-the-ordinary. Maroon colored, spider-like flowers contrast with the more common pinks and lavenders of the season. It’s one of my favorites though, along with two other maroon-bloomers also seen in the spring.

Way down yonder in the Paw-paw patch, you can find more reddish-brown blooms, if you know where to look for them. Paw-paws bear their blossoms above eye level, so they’re easily missed. At the other extreme, Wild Ginger hides its blossoms barely above the ground — so low that its maroon flowers are pollinated by crawling insects. Three very dissimilar plants, all sharing the same striking color.

Carolina Allspice has a long bloom time. These had already been in flower for a few weeks when I took this photo. By summer, it becomes just another shrub constantly in need of trimming, or the stone walkways will disappear beneath it. But when I wield my clippers, I’ll be reminded of its better qualities, as the spicy aroma that gives Carolina Allspice its name fills the air.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.