Devilwood: an unsung American native

This article was published in The South Carolina Nurseryman, March/April 2015, p. 38-39. It was co-written with Kathy Bridges, Landscape Manager and Student Coordinator, South Carolina Botanical Garden. Since its publication, I became aware that its scientific name has been changed to  Cartrema americana.

With the common name of devilwood (Osmanthus americanus), you would expect this extremely hard-wooded species to be better suited for making Harry Potter wands[1] than adorning the landscape as an attractive evergreen shrub or small tree. However, it does have landscape merit, although few people know it. This Southeastern native joins other “underused” horticultural gems as it languishes in obscurity. It’s a favorite among native plant aficionados or horticulture instructors like Kathryn White at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood: “The fact that it is native to the southeast and has good pest resistance would make it an excellent alternative to plants such as Leyland cypress or red

osmanthus americanus bloom.jpg

Closeup of Osmanthus americanus flowers. Credit: Kathy Bridges.

tips (Photinia xfraseri). Other wonderful characteristics of devilwood are fragrant flowers and fruit that’s attractive to wildlife. For the gardener wanting to add a native plant to their landscape or someone just looking to add a low fuss plant into their landscape this is one that should definitely be considered.”

Osmanthus americanus is a dioecious evergreen shrub or small multi-trunked tree that grows 15 to 25 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. Panicles of creamy-white fragrant flowers appear in early spring that give rise to dark blue drupes in late summer. In the SC Botanic Garden devilwood thrives beneath the high shade of pines and in exposed dry locations (in full sun the leaves taken on more yellowish tones). Although native to the edges of swamps and streams in the coastal plain, this highly adaptable species exhibits excellent drought tolerance that lends itself to naturalized landscapes, rain gardens, and in backyard wildlife habitats where it acts as a magnet for birds and butterflies.

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Osmanthus americanus cuttings prepared by Spartanburg Community College students as part of their Plant Propagation class. Credit: Kevin Parris.

Unfortunately, it’s not a common denizen of landscapes because “it has no single striking trait,” as suggested by Dr. Mellichamp[2], Director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. (Sadly, it wasn’t included in Dick Bir’s book[3]). Devilwood also sports a variety of forms, according to Ted Stephens, co-owner of Nurseries Caroliniana, who said: “This is one species where there really needs to be some clonal selections. Our customers bought them mostly for screens because the form was not good enough for a foundation plant.”

Kevin Parris, Horticulture Instructor/Arboretum Director at Spartanburg Community College propagated a desirable clone at Gilbert’s Nursery in Chesnee in the mid-1990s. “The parent plant was located in the landscape of the Fred Blackley Landscape Architecture offices in Shelby, NC. It has more narrow foliage and shorter internodes than the typical species, giving it the form and texture of Myrica cerifera, for which it is an outstanding alternative in colder climates. Gilbert’s has propagated thousands of this clone over the years, so if you stumble onto a nursery produced Osmanthus americanus in a commercial or residential setting, there is a good chance it traces back to the parent plant in Shelby.”

Bob Head, plant breeder and co-owner of Head Ornamentals® and Head Select®, has been selecting O. americanus for years. In addition to a variegated form with double flowers, he’s been collecting forms with big wide leaves and full sun tolerance. Head recommends O. americanus in a lightly shaded site as a small accent tree with a single, dominant trunk, where it can be appreciated for its fragrant flowers, absence of pests, and beautiful, spine-free evergreen leaves.

Propagating O. americanus from seed can be a daunting task due to double dormancy

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Osmanthus americanus in the Butterfly Garden in the SC Botanical Garden. Credit: K. Bridges.

issues. However, Parris and the students in his Plant Propagation class have achieved success in rooting cuttings taken from late winter to early spring. They dip them in 2000 ppm K-IBA and 1000 ppm NAA and then root them under intermittent mist. They have also achieved good results with firm semihardwood cuttings in late summer to early fall.

Admittedly O. americanus lacks the does not have the star power as its Asian counterparts, such as O. heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, O. xfortunei, or O. fragrans ‘Fudingzhou’. These species enjoy widespread consumer acceptance without the help of publicist or a Don King-like promoter. Hopefully the introduction of tighter, denser, forms–even dwarf selections, and maybe with a little magic, devilwood will become a highly sought-after contender one day.

[1] Teague, G. E. 2015. The witch’s guide to wands: A complete botanical, magical, and elemental guide to making, choosing, and using the right wand. Weiser Books, Newburyport, MA.

[2] Mellichamp. L. 2014. Native plants of the Southeast. Timber Press, Portland, OR (https://gardens.uncc.edu).

[3] Bir, R. E. 1992. Growing and propagating showy native woody plants. University of NC Press, Chapel Hill. NC.

Bob Polomski  © 2016

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