- Author: Diana Bryggman
I recently transplanted a shrub that had been a mystery to me for the four years I have been gardening on an old property in Solano County. I have been trying to introduce more natives into my garden and was pleased to find Calycanthus occidentalis, known commonly as Spice Bush or Western Sweetshrub, at the UC Davis Arboretum Plant Sale last spring. Sunset claims this plant grows in Sunset Zones 4-9 and 14-24, in sun or shade. Other resources indicate it is often found near streams in the Coast Range and Sierra foothills. I planted my Arboretum purchase on the east side of the house, where it resides with some other natives, Carpenteria californica and Mahonia pinnata. While my Calycanthus has not bloomed this year, it has grown and seems healthy. I continue to wait for the small, dark red flowers that will supposedly produce an interesting fragrance akin to that of an old wine barrel.
As it happens, while I was weeding another area of the yard, I realized that my mystery shrub must also be Calycanthus. Of course that specimen was right where I did not want it, so I decided to transplant it to the west side of the house, in hopes that more sun would yield those reddish flowers that all my botanical resources assure me look like miniature red water lilies. I am happy to report that my transplant subject had a very healthy root system, and while it did go through a bit of a shock period, in which it shed all of its leaves, it is has now accepted its fate and is putting on new leaves. Native Americans apparently used this plant as a cold remedy, for basketry, bows, whistles, toys and arrows. I am told it makes an excellent stabilizing plant for banks, and the roots I discovered upon digging it out certainly indicate that should be the case.
While investigating the range of this native plant, I learned much more about Willis Linn Jepson, really California's first known and most acclaimed botanist. Turns out he was born in Vacaville, and collected many of his specimens here in Solano County. I was familiar with The Jepson Manual, a revision of Dr. Jepson's 1925 work, Manual of the Flowering Plants of California, but somehow never knew that our foremost expert on natives was himself a native! I find myself further inspired to incorporate more natives as I expand my garden, and hopefully identify some other mystery plants on my property that may date back 100 years or more.