Spicebush from the west side of North America brewing up an aroma

The wintersweet family includes two, three or four genera, depending on your perspective. The most familiar, and constant, constituent is Chimonanthus with a handful of species from China and thereabouts. The other so-far unwavering member is Calycanthus, the spicebushes, with at least two species from North America.

These days a third species of Calycanthus, from China, is accepted as part of this genus. Calycanthus chinensis was described originally as a new genus Sinocalycanthus, although slightly confused by a failed attempt to describe it as a Calycanthus the year before. To complicate this little scenario further there is a hybrid between the two 'genera' bred in cultivation called x Sinocalycalycanthus.

The fourth, sometimes included, genus is from Australia, called Idiospermum and sometimes given the disarming common name of Idiot Fruit ('idio' in the botanical name means unusual, so 'idiospermum' for unusual seed). The single species of Idiospermum was once thought to be extinct but now happily grows in nature and some botanic gardens (we have one specimen, and Sydney had two at the time I worked there).

For the last few decades of the 20th century Idiospermum was considered to be in its own family but the flowers do look very similar to those of the plant I'm featuring today, Calycanthus occidentalis, so I'm pleased it has now been returned to the wintersweet family, Calycanthaceae. The flowers of both also resemble some magnolias (e.g. the Port Wine Magnolia, Magnolia figo).

Happily the botanical names of the three Calycanthus species help us locate them in nature. Calycanthus chinensis as I said, is from China. Calycanthus occidentalis is from California: 'occidentalis' means from the west, in this case of North America.

Its sister species, Calycanthus floridus, is, as the name professes, from the east of the same continent although extending from Florida up to Virginia. Sometimes the first species is called Western Sweetshrub and the latter Eastern Sweetshrub.

The sweetness is in the flowers, which has been described as 'combining hints of pineapple, strawberry and banana'. The Western Sweetshrub, pictured here from opposite the Water Conservation Garden in Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria's Melbourne Gardens, is said to have a lesser perfume and its true I had to dip my nose deep into the bloom to discover any of its fruity fragrance.

Once there I detected more of a fermented fruit aroma. A little like grape must I thought, or like the early stages of apple cider according to Neville Walsh. Either way, not quite the fresh fruit-bowl experience I was expecting.

The bark smells like camphor. Even a tiny fragment crushed in the hand emits a pungent odor. Volatile compounds like this often correlate with medicinal use and in this case the bark and roots of spicebush are used by Native Americans to treat a variety of ailments.

Although the Eastern Spicebush is sometimes called the Carolina Allspice, and the Western one Californian Allspice, the culinary allspice we are more familiar with is an unrelated myrtle (a species of Pimenta).


Beth Molnar said…
The green dinosaur | Wet Tropics Management Authority
I found the above interesting article which reveals some of the idiosyncracies of this
fascinating tree.
In Botany, 1968, at UQ Townsville campus, we were told that forms such as the Lotus or Nymphaea and the Magnolia, where the seeds were borne above the plane of petals, and concentric, resembling cones, were typical of Early, as in Ancestral or Progenator, flowering species. Would it not be wonderful to have such beauties in one's bit of bush! Thank you, Tim.
Beth Molnar,
Talking Plants said…
Thanks Beth. It's an interesting piece of the puzzle, then and now. Mostly we seem to talk about ANITA these days - Amborella, Nymphaeales, Illiciales, Trimeniales and Austrobaileya - although their names and classifications vary. These are 'basal groups' in the angiosperm tree and you can sort of look at their shared characters as telling you something about the ancestral flowering plant. Only sort of though, it gets hard to talk about these lineages without using terms like 'primitive', which they are not. All fascinating stuff and, as you say, great to have them growing nearby as a reminder of the 'tree of life'.