Western spicebush Calycanthus occidentalis is a bold textured deciduous shrub. In the wild it is found in the lower elevations of the mountains of California and Oregon growing along creeks, ponds margins, canyon bottoms and in moist woodland settings. Named for its strong scent in leaf, stem and flower, some say the aroma is camphor-like others declare it smells like red wine or the inside of a wine barrel. The over-all appearance of the western spicebush really depends upon where it is growing. In the garden with sun or light shade and some moisture it can grow into an attractive 4 -10 foot high and wide mound. Spicebush can also be used as a loose hedge or foundation planting. Its simple, egg shaped, opposite leaves create a satisfying confident appearance. When encountered along creeks and in canyons spicebush grows as a thicket. One might simply wander by without noticing unless you are there during the lengthy bloom period, or in the autumn when leaves turn yellow dropping us a sign of quickly shortening days. But, the very best thing about this shrub is the two inch burnt orange to purple maroon flowers. When you first see them you are drawn in, perhaps by the aroma but also by curiosity. The flowers look a bit like a water lily but Calycanthus is placed on the Magnoliid branch of the tree of life. Not surprisingly, the showy parts are similar to magnolia blooms with spirally arranged tepals (uniform sepals and petals). Spicebush is pollinated by tiny Nitidulidae beetles probably drawn by the flower scent and then “rewarded with a protein-rich meal of succulent tissue at the inner base of the tepals and stamens.”. Once the flower has been pollinated and the tepals drop, an urn shaped seed capsule decorated by tepal scars is left behind. At first the one to two inch seed capsules are a solid fleshy green. If the flowers are successfully pollinated, the capsules dry to brown and large seeds about the size of pine-nuts form. By fall you can shake out hand fulls of seed from these strange urn shaped fruits. Spicebush smells spicy enough to be low on the deer’s list of tasty treats, though they do nibble it a bit in passing.
Seeking the calming sound of water and wind in the trees, I happened into a blooming spice bush thicket while hiking along a creek the other day. It was gratifying to examine the lovely blooms and appreciate the scene. Though my thoughts were also on recent police brutality and I recognized my privilege to feel safe doing this. If I were a Person Of Color I might not find comfort in such a place for fear of being somehow unfairly singled out by a scared look from a passerby, undue questioning from some authority figure, or even violence and murder. I wonder if someday this point in history will seem like the Dark Ages. Can any of us imagine a future when we are able to think back on how shamefully long it took for us to truly see, recognize and justly converse with all people in the spirit of equality? What will it take for the police to stop killing black people right now? What will it take for all people to be treated equally, have equal opportunities, health care, protection under the law? What will it take for all people be able to wander up a canyon to smell the spicebush without being filled with existential dread?
All of us at Oaktown Native Plant Nursery hope to see that day.