Sweet Shrubs for Your Landscape

Sweet Shrubs for Your Landscape

Let me introduce you to two “sweet” shrubs that may not be familiar to you. I introduce them as “sweet” because that epithet is in both of their common names. I’m referring to Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) and sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). I have been growing both types of these “sweet” shrubs in my Tyler landscape for more than 25 years. I think they not only deserve a better location in my garden to show off their qualities, but they also may deserve a spot in your landscape, as well.


Virginia sweetspire is a lovely shrub native to the southeastern United States, including southeast Texas. It is often found in shaded locations along streams. However, when grown in the garden, it tolerates a wide range of conditions, from wet to moderately dry soil, and from full sun to mostly shade. It also tolerates a wide range of soils that are acidic or moderately alkaline.

It has a suckering growth habit, so it should be located where its spreading would be welcome or manageable. Suckers can be easily removed if this plant spreads farther than desired. Depending on variety and sun exposure, the shoots can grow from three to more than six feet tall. These shoots often branch toward their ends, resulting in a graceful arching habit. When grown in full sun, sweetspire will be dense, resulting in greater flower-power.

I first became aware of this shrub when I saw a photo of it in an article in a Brooklyn Botanical Garden publication. In that garden, it was allowed to grow to a width of about seven feet in full sun. It was almost totally covered with flowers. That was a “wow” moment for me and started my quest to acquire one.

The glossy, dark-green leaves are long and somewhat narrow, about 1.5-to-3 inches long. In mild winters it tends to be evergreen or semi-evergreen. Even after the 12-degree low in January this year, several of my plants in different spots in the yard still had some of their colorful leaves in February. One of sweetspire’s outstanding characteristics is its fabulous fall color, with foliage turning various shades of bronze, red, purple, yellow and orange. That alone would be good enough reason to include this plant in your landscape.

Of course, the common name refers to the flowers, which are small individually but packed along slender, pendulous spikes. They are white and fragrant. There is a cultivar called ‘Sarah Eve’ that supposedly has pinkish flowers, but only the sepals and calyxes are pink, and the petals are white — so its color is not very noticeable. Where I live in Northeast Texas, it blooms from late April into mid-May.

There are a couple of cultivars that should readily be available from local nurseries and garden centers. ‘Henry’s Garnet’ grows to about 5-to-6 feet tall and wide, with very long flower spikes up to 6 inches. As the variety name implies, it has fabulously colorful purple fall foliage.

‘Little Henry’ is another cultivar that is becoming widely available. It has a bit more compact growth habit and a bit shorter flower spikes but the same colorful fall foliage.


Carolina-allspice (sweetshrub) is another native southeastern suckering shrub that has wonderfully fragrant flowers. The reddish-maroon flowers have a spicy, fruity fragrance that even I, with challenged olfactory senses, can easily smell. The fragrance tends to be more noticeable late in the day. It blooms anywhere from late March on into early May.

I was first given a start of this passalong shrub not long after I moved to Tyler. It was a gift for giving a talk to a garden club in Lindale. Almost 30 years later, it is still thriving in a remote location of my yard, which is now in fairly deep shade and taken over by Asian jasmine. This winter I transplanted several of the suckers to a sunnier spot in my yard, closer to the house, so we can more easily enjoy its sweet fragrance.

The shrub will sucker, potentially growing into a colony several feet wide, if allowed to roam. The stems, which are bare in the winter, have large, rounded leaves arranged opposite one another on a stem, making it easy to identify in the winter. I also like the fall color, as this plant turns a nice buttery yellow. It can grow from 6 to about 10 feet in height. It tolerates shade and does well in full sun. It also tolerates a wide range of soil types and moisture levels but is not very drought tolerant.

There is a yellow-flowering cultivar called ‘Athens’ that I have not grown, but it reportedly has very fragrant flowers.

One of the most striking Calycanthus varieties is ‘Burgundy Spice’, which has very dark-red or purple foliage, along with the typical dark-red flowers. It is listed as C. purpureus. The foliage is so dramatic that the flowers are almost unnoticeable. I’ve grown this multi-stem shrub for a few years, and only now has it started to slowly sucker. It is about 6-feet tall in my garden. Plant it where there is a lighter background to really show off the foliage.

‘Hartlage Wine’ is an interesting hybrid between the native Calycanthus floridus and the Asian species C. chinensis. It grows into a large shrub, over 10-feet tall, with large leaves and abundant red flowers. However, I cannot detect any fragrance.

‘Aphrodite’ is another recently introduced hybrid that reportedly has an extended period of blooms over several weeks or months. Like ‘Hartlage Wine’, it can grow over 10-feet tall.

Both sweetspire and sweetshrub can be used in a border planting, where they would provide a fragrant addition to other plants as well as serve as a screen. This is especially true for the taller hybrid sweetshrubs. Since they both have suckering habits, you should take that into consideration and plant them where they can be allowed to form a colony. Or place a sweetshrub near an entry or walkway where its sweet aroma can be easily appreciated.

Add some sweetness to your yard this spring with either of these outstanding “sweet” shrubs.

By Keith Hansen
Smith County Horticulturist, Emeritus
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Owner, East Texas Gardening