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Calycanthus shrubs make heady impression

“As punctual as an employee, I would leave home in the eight-thirty cold, almost always on my bicycle but sometimes on foot; after twenty minutes at most, I would be ringing the bell of the entrance at the end of Corso Ercole I d’Este, to cross the park then, pervaded, around the beginning of February, by the delicate scent of the yellow calycanthus flower…”

— Giorgio Bassani, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” 1962

In Giorgio Bassani’s novel set in the city of Ferrara, Italy, Bassani describes his expulsion from the public library after Mussolini’s fascist regime began enacting a series of racial laws in 1938 that severely restricted the civil rights of Italian Jews. Professor Ermanno, head of the wealthy Finzi-Contini family, invited Bassani to complete his thesis studies in the library at the Finzi-Contini estate.

This arrangement thrilled Bassani, not only because of “the almost twenty thousand books” in the professor’s private library but also because there he felt closer to the professor’s daughter, Micol. Bassani had fallen desperately in love with Micol the previous autumn, but she had rejected his advances and then left abruptly for Venice.

The yellow calycanthus flowers that Bassani recalled from his winter treks through the Finzi-Continis’ garden are from Chimonanthus praecox, or wintersweet, a highly fragrant deciduous shrub native to China. The 1 1/2-inch, wax-coated flowers consist of 15 to 21 translucent yellow outer tepals (indistinguishable petals and sepals) that turn purplish in the center.

Depending on the winter climate where they are grown, C. praecox blooms on bare branches anytime between December and March, typically during January in Oregon. (Praecox is a Latin term meaning “early or precocious” and is applied to several species of early flowering plants).

The wintersweet shrub, which can grow up to 15 feet tall, is an important food source for early-emerging pollinators such as hoverflies and bees. Two cultivars, ‘Grandiflorus’ and ‘Luteus’ have won the Royal Horticulture Society’s prestigious Award of Garden Merit for their ornamental value. The highly scented flowers are also grown commercially for their use in perfumes and cosmetics.

C. praecox is a member of the small Calycanthaceae plant family, which also includes three late spring/summer-flowering species in the Calycanthus genus. Interestingly, all of the species in the Calycanthus genus are pollinated by small, sap beetles. In fact, beetles make up the largest group of pollinating animals because there are so many different kinds. Beetles pollinate 88% of the flowering plants around the world.

One species, C. chinensis, is native to southeast China. Habitat loss and low pollination rates have threatened the survival of wild populations, and C. chinensis is currently on China’s official list of endangered plant species. The flowers of C. chinensis are pinkish-white with yellow inner tepals. They are larger than C. praecox and do not have a fragrance; however, crosses with other Calycanthus species have produced aromatic hybrids.

The other two Calycanthus species are native to North America. C. floridus, also called Carolina spicebush or eastern sweetshrub, is native to eastern regions of the United States. C. floridus is widely grown as an ornamental landscape shrub for its scented, dark-green leaves and reddish-brown to reddish-purple flowers that bloom from May to July.

The other native North American species is C. occidentalis, the California spicebush or western sweetshrub, which grows wild in moist foothill habitats of California, Southern Oregon and Washington.

The flowers, which bloom from May to September, are similar in color to the Carolina spicebush, and they’re shaped like star magnolias. However, whereas C. floridus developed a fresh strawberry-pineapple fragrance to attract beetles, C. occidentalis gives off the aroma of fermenting fruit. Some say the flowers smell like the “bottom of an old wine barrel,” but the beetles love them! The shrub’s bark is also highly aromatic, releasing a strong camphor smell when scraped.

If you want to include western sweetshrub in your native plant garden, keep in mind that the plant is not drought tolerant. It will need moderate watering during dry periods, and it will benefit from some shade during the late afternoon heat.

C. occidentalis grows up to 13 feet tall and 12 feet wide, so give it plenty of room to mature. It prefers rich, well-draining soils, so add compost and mulch around the root zone to retain moisture.

Prune calycanthus shrubs soon after they flower (late winter to fall, depending on the species.) Remove dead, damaged and crossed limbs, as well as thin branches, to increase air circulation. If the shrubs become leggy, cut back to 6 to 12 inches from ground level to increase fullness.

The Finzi-Continis’ wintersweet shrubs with their pretty yellow flowers must have made quite an impression on young Bassani because, other than canna lilies, they are the only flowers in the garden that he mentions. Bassani tells us he finally returned to Ferrara in the spring of 1957 to find the Finzi-Contini’s beautiful park had been destroyed.

All of Micol Finzi-Contini’s beloved trees had been cut down during the war for firewood. The canna lilies and wintersweet shrubs had been replaced by a large vegetable garden that fed 50 refugee families living in the bombed-out house. Nothing remained of the Finzi-Continis’ prized tennis court, where Bassani had fallen in love with Micol during the warm autumn of 1938.

Reading “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” reminded me that I should never take my garden — my shelter, my freedom — for granted. We are all the Finzi-Continis; we are all the people of Ukraine.

Our failure to recognize that we all share in a continuous struggle for justice places us at risk of watching helplessly as our “gardens” are stripped away.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.