The riddle of sweet Betsy

By L.A. Jackson
The riddle of sweet Betsy

Sweet Betsy

When the small, deep maroon to rust-red flowers of the sweet Betsy bush (Calycanthus floridus) open in the spring, some gardeners swear they have one of the most pleasing garden fragrances on the planet, while other backyard growers swear at their bushes for having absolutely no scent.

What gives?

It seems sweet Betsy can be a fickle lady. Also known as sweet shrub, Carolina allspice, strawberry shrub, spicebush and sweet bubby bush, this native ornamental, which grows 6 to 9 feet high, produces masses of blossoms that, depending on the plant, can range in fragrance from very obvious to none at all.

So, how can you get your hands on a sweet Betsy that is guaranteed to waft wonderful perfume into your garden? Just walk close to one in full bloom and sniff. A scented sweet Betsy is hard to miss.

If the bush you find is in a friend's yard, suckers readily sprout in the soil from the main plant, so, with permission, you can dig up one of the plantlets, which, in time, will produce the same sweet flowers. Although it is better to transplant suckers in the fall or winter, they can be moved in the spring if ground moisture needs are met during their first summer in the garden.

The straight species of sweet Betsy is the main culprit that produces wild swings in fragrance strength, but cultivars have been developed to be more dependable when it comes to sweet aromas. Three such selections are 'Edith Wilder', 'Michael Lindsey' and 'Athens' (which actually has yellowish-green flowers). However, since there is still some variation in scent intensity and particular smell, which can range from strawberries, bananas, pineapples to even bubblegum, visit local nurseries this spring when these bushes are in bloom and let your nose choose the right sweet Betsy for you.

And while its fragrant flowers are what draws most gardeners to sweet Betsy, also keep in mind that, come autumn, this lady exits the growing season in a coat of gorgeous yellow leaves.

Garden To Do's

  • If this year's cool spring delayed the start of your warm-season veggie patch, don't worry, May is still a prime time to plant snap beans, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, corn and cantaloupes.
  • And if you held off until now planting hot peppers, sweet peppers, eggplant, southern peas, lima beans and okra, you are one smart gardener because these heat-seeking vegetables are especially sensitive to being grown in cool soil.
  • Remember where you planted your taros, hostas, hardy begonias, Japanese anemones or butterfly weed? Don't be so quick to write them off as dead and find replacements — these shy beauties usually sprout late in the spring.
  • Climbing roses don't live up to their name — they need to be trained and tied onto supports. To prevent damage, tie them loosely.
  • If azaleas are looking a little raggedy, wait until after they have finished blooming to trim them into proper shape.
  • Tender summer bulbs such as caladiums, dahlias, cannas and gladioli can now be planted.
  • Whether for the lawn or the garden, when you water, water deeply. Long, thorough waterings encourage roots to penetrate deep into the soil, making plants less susceptible to suffering during periods of hot, dry weather.
  • Have an old mail box in the garage? Give it a fresh, bright coat of paint and nail it to a post in the garden to store string, plant tags, twist-ties, hand tools and other small backyard-growing essentials.
  • The water garden is beginning to get into the swing of spring. For the best flower shows from lily and lotus plants, fertilize them about every three weeks. Marginal plants such as rose mallow, cardinal flower, spike rush, dwarf papyrus, colocasia and sweet flag will also benefit from a light addition of nutrients every five to six weeks.

About the Author

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. If you would like to ask him a question about your garden, contact L.A. at: lajackson1@gmail.com

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