Native Plant of the Moment - Spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis)

This morning (Sunday morning as I write) I walked out my front door to see this beautiful bloom on my Spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis).

It's the first time I have ever seen a bloom on it, and such a beauty. At least two inches in diameter, and a wonderful strong red, edging ever so slightly into the brown range - a kind of light maroon. It does have a pleasant spicy smell, not quite cinnamon, not quite nutmeg but in that general range.

I planted the bush on the other side of the trellis whereon groweth the Dutchman's Pipe vine, Aristolochia californica, which I planted at the same time, October of 07, so they are not quite three years old. I had hoped to see the interesting Dutchman's pipe blooms by now - conversation pieces as it were, for the entrance deck to our home, and enticements to the Pipevine Swallowtale (Battus philenor) whose larvae can feed on it. But so far nada. I did give it a thorough pruning early in the year though and I think it put all its strength into growing back from that. Next year!

I walked round to the other side of the trellis to get a better look at the spicebush -- lots of other blooms are coming! Late spring and all through summer is the promise, with some kind of interesting woody fruits that persist into winter - I look forward to seeing those too. I wonder if the birds will eat them?

And by the way, the deer pretty much leave spicebush alone. Yay! -- So far anyway!

Spicebush is winter deciduous, but I can't remember how it looks in autumn. In my planting notes I wrote that it has green long smooth ovate leaves, pale gold in autumn. The leaves are wonderfully large and very green and softly glossy, which I appreciate since so many of the local natives here have small hard leaves to withstand the summer dryness.

I planted this shrub - and the Dutchman's Pipe vine - from 1 gallon pots bought in a CNPS sale in October of 07. It is now about four feet tall and wide, spreading, in a typically shrubby multi-trunked way. It can grow to eight feet (Western Garden Book says 12).

I irrigate this area on a whimsical basis. At most once a month. It is not on the drip/microspray tangle of tubes I optimistically call "the irrigation system." It happy here in full sun from late morning to mid afternoon. California Native Plants for the Garden says this plant can take full sun to partial shade, with occasional to regular water. It grows in moist areas though, so it may prefer more water than I've been doling out in our dry summers.

Once established, it can spread aggressively, I read. It has started to take off this year, so we'll see how it behaves as time goes by. I read that it can be good for erosion control, but I won't use it that way: I plan to use local indigenous natives for the slopes around here (I have baby toyon and ocean spray from cuttings, growing in pots for fall planting). I'm using it as an ornamental, to soften the walls of the house.

I read that some American Indians used scraped bark of Calycanthus occidentalis medicinally in treating severe colds (D. E. Moerman 1986).

I also read that it is not necessary to prune this shrub for shape, and it is true that it grows lush to the ground and in a roundish shape. You can prune it to a multi-trunked tree, or a hedge. In due course I will prune out some of its nice light brown stems from the base. I don't want it to get too enormous or too congested. Also I think the deer may have pruned it for me early on. They eat pretty much any plant when it's very young.

California Native Plants for the Garden also has a few companion planting suggestions:
For shady locations: Foothill sedge, western meadow rue, Douglas iris, giant chain fern.
For sunny locations: Coffeeberry and deer grass.

Spicebush naturally occurs in moist places below 4000 feet in the North Coast Ranges, southern Cascade Range, and foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Interestingly, tell me that both of these plants have been observed just one time in my county - in the Watsonville Sloughs, a wetlands area which includes the well-known Elkhorn Slough - across the Monterey Bay from us. So they could be local, but if so they are very rare locally, and they are not local to my drier habitats here on the ridge.

My current restoration philosophy is this: Close to the house, I'll plant anything I like, as long as it is not invasive or a major fire hazard. Farther off I'm a bit more strict, and use only local natives, preferably propagated from what grows here or in the immediate neighborhood.

In a fire prone area like this, you're not supposed to plant shrubs close to the house, but not all shrubs are equal. This is quite a juicy shrub, and anyway, the trellis is sticking out more than the shrub itself. Not that that is a good thing either, just a bit of justificationary mental gymnastics. On the Las Pilitas nursery leaf burn times page, Bert says:
If after sixty seconds the plant didn't light, that's amazing. Bushes that burnt after 15-30 seconds are about as flammable as your home. Some of the Ceanothus should be considered heat shields.
Well, Calycanthus occidentalis is one of those that takes longer than 60 seconds and the comment is "will not stay lit." Aristolochia californica also takes longer than 60 seconds to ignite.

So if you have room for a mid-sized shrub in your garden (Western Garden zones 4-9, 14-24), I recommend you consider the handsome spicebush. Besides its beauty and easy-care attributes, it is also resistant to oak root fungus and is insect and disease free.


Rachel said…
I love Calycanthus and wish I had a shady spot to plant it. When we go on our Russian River tubing trips the banks are covered in it.
Very nice plant, and thanks for all the great details. I have the PERFECT place for it. Unfortunately there are several plants there already. Such is the story of my garden with already too many plants...
susan morrison said…
I love this shrub and am surprised it isn't planted more.

VERY interesting about the firescaping comments on Las Pilitas. I took a firescaping class through my Master Gardener program, but haven't done any designs for a long time in the parts of East Bay that are considered at risk, so only implement the concepts in a general way. Although even in a suburban neighborhood, it's still a good idea to plant thoughtfully. A fireman told me at one point that in a severe fire where there may not be time to save every house, the house with mature trees pressed up against the structure and junipers all around is not the one they'll start with.
Christine said…
Yikes, you beat me to it! I just purchased one the other day and was waiting for it to bloom. The ones in Tilden Park were in full bloom a few weeks ago and seemed 12' tall! It looked like they made them screening hedges. It also has the large foliage that can provide contrast to the usually lacy leaves of most other natives. Thanks for all the info!
Jess said…
What a wealth of information on this great plant! Congrats on getting the awesome blooms. I think you'll find the leaves turn a pleasant bright yellow in fall. I have three Spicebushes, one in the ground in pretty deep shade, one in a wine barrel in most-shade, and one in a really large ceramic pot in afternoon sun. The one in the ground has been very slow and hasn't changed much in the two years I've had it. It got taken down to almost nothing by deer early on, but recovered and hasn't been touched since. (Guess the deer found out the leaves are like pepper!) The one in the wine barrel in shade has done stunningly well and is one of my happiest landscape choices, because it's filled out a boring spot with so much lush green. The one in the large pot in afternoon sun grew just as fast, and I really need some greenery in that spot, but unfortunately the leaves burn to a crisp in the summer. Maybe they need to be in the ground to handle hot sun. Your mentioning that they can take "full sun" inspires me to try it in a pot on my very shady patio--thanks for the idea!
Jess said…
Oops, I meant to say your mentioning that they can take "full SHADE" inspires me to try it on a shady patio!
Country Mouse said…
Thanks all for dropping in - Rachel, it seems happy if it gets shade some part of the day. James - I hear ya. Susan, I've heard the same thing from fire fighters here. In fact that was one factor in keeping our swimming pool - they will use that water to fight fire. Christine - I haveta get up to Tilden again soon! I'd love to see them 12 feet tall. Jess thanks for that great info about growing in containers, and growing in different sun exposure - I think I could grow some in wine barrels here too - great idea!
Wendy said…
I also have a spicebush (sinycalycalycanthus). It's gorgeous in the autumn- leaves yellow and orange before they fall.
Unknown said…
Our spice bush is one year old, as are the rest of the drought tolerant plants in our San Francisco garden. They are all on a 2x wk drip system. We are at the beach, so it is moist in the everybody at dusk, but there is plenty of hot sun during the day. the spice bush gets both shade & sun. Unlike the other plants that have grown into tall abundantly flowering bushes, the spice bush sprouted leaves a couple times & one flower. It's never thrived. All the leaves have fallen off in the last few weeks. I have started watering it more like a tree, with a 10 gallon drip bucket a couple times a week. Any advice? Thank you!
Country Mouse said…
Hi Ina, I have no specific expertise - my spice bush of course is bare naked twigs right now pretty much as it's deciduous and somewhat late to leaf out compared to some other natives. Mine gets a lot of sun, and some shade, and is not coastal or not very - we're on a sunny ridge. Twice a week is a LOT of water for a drought tolerant garden and for most Cal. native plants from dry areas. Also one year is very young - and this is not an early spring plant either. My advice is - be careful of overwatering, and have patience. Try once every two weeks maybe and of course - not when it's wet weather. Less in summer. Once a month perhaps since it's in its second year. California natives typically grow roots the first two - three years, then push up topside growth. Check that the twigs remain "bendy" and not brittle, and that you have some hard little leaf buds forming. If so you're probably in good shape.