This Halloween, I decided to go the extra mile for the neighborhood kids and buy only old-time candies. The way I see it, when Trick or Treating is over and you dump the contents of your pillow case onto the bed, you really don't want to see 50 mini Snickers bars. You want variety. So this year, I picked up a stash of retro candy at the State Farmers Market. I got some of my childhood favorites - Banana Splits, Mary Janes, Bit 0 Honeys, Jawbreakers - along with some others that I don't remember but that Ron swears by. The leftovers should be fun.
I love sugar. When I was a kid, dressing up and trick-or-treating was merely a means to an end; for me, Halloween was all about the candy. Today I am a sucker for any plant that smells like candy and would happily add them all to my garden. But as far as I can tell, only two fit the bill. One is Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), which smells like a Hershey bar. The other is Magnolia figo (formerly
Michelia figo), aka banana shrub. It smells like Banana Splits.
First up, Chocolate Cosmos. What a disappointment. I tried it a few years ago and, while the plant was pretty enough, all in all it was nothing to write home about. I probably should have used it in a container, but instead I plopped it into the ground, where it looked a little scraggly. Worst of all, you had to squat down, get face to face with the flower, and inhale to get the aroma. It wasn't worth it. Unwrapping a Hershey bar was easier.
Magnolia figo, on the other hand, is definitely worth it. It may not be the showiest broadleaf evergreen for the South (that would be camellia), but it is definitely "handsome," as plant books like to say. It has attractive deep green foliage and dainty, cup-shaped flowers in either yellow or burgundy. It blooms heavily in March, April, and May, then repeats on and off through the summer and into the fall; mine has a few blooms now. It even gets random red berries if the flowers are pollinated.
But the main appeal of banana shrub is its aroma. To me, the scent is distinctly not banana; rather, it is unmistakably the smell of Banana Splits. In the warm months, when the plant is covered with flowers, the yard is filled with the gentle fragrance of cheap banana candy. It's delightful.
For those of you too young to remember, Banana Splits are little squares of extremely artificial-tasting banana taffy. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, I adored them. We ("we" being my sisters, brothers, and pretty much everyone attending Post Road elementary school) used to buy them at Collins' for a nickel a piece. Located just a few blocks from school, Collins' was a combination candy-newspaper-tobacco store and one of the bedrock institutions of my childhood. My weekly allowance was hardly princely, even by 1960s standards; my father started us at 5 cents, then raised us to 10 cents at some point, now forgotten. Collins' was where I spent what little I had -- which, come to think of it, is probably why we got only 5 or 10 cents. A father's wisdom reveals itself in time.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's why, when I sneaked a Banana Split from the Halloween stash, it tasted good to me, although it's basically artificially flavored sweet rubber. It's why Ron prefers an Entenmann's chocolate cake to almost anything I can bake from scratch (and I'm a pretty good baker). And it's one of the reasons I am so devoted to my banana shrub. Until they make a plant that smells like Sour Grape gum, which I vastly prefer to Banana Splits, Magnolia figo will always have a place in my heart.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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