Sweet bubby bush
I recently received an email from a reader who asked, “Could you write about the sweet bubby bush? That’s the only name I know it by. Old plant, my mom loves it. I’d like to plant one. Haven’t seen it in a long time.”
I replied that I would enjoy doing so since it is also one of my favorite plants — one that, for whatever reason, I’ve never previously written about.
Sweet bubby bush is a fairly common shrub up to 10 feet in height that displays opposite pointed leaves. It grows in rich woods and alongside streams from low altitudes up to 4,000 or so feet. The flowering period varies but is normally from late spring into mid-summer.
The plant is also known by the common names of strawberry bush and Carolina allspice. In my experience, however, most people call it sweetshrub.
There are two species. The most common is “Calycanthus floridus,” which displays conspicuous reddish-maroon flowers made up of similar-appearing petals and sepals that are magnolia-like in form. There are two distinctive forms of this maroon-flowering species: hairy sweetshrub (C.f. var. floridus), which has leaves that are pubescent on their undersides and along the stems; and smooth sweetshrub (C.f. glaucus), which has leaves that are essentially hairless on their undersides and along the stems. Smooth sweetshrub is probably the most common variant in the Smokies region.
The second species, Georgia sweetshrub (C. brockiana), is rare, having been reported only from a few locations in north-central Georgia. It displays flowers that are composed of yellowish-greenish petals and sepals.
I don’t know why the plant is called Carolina allspice. Nothing in my sources indicates that it was ever used as a seasoning agent. But the designation sweetshrub no doubt arose from qualities exhibited by both the leaves and flowers. When crushed, the leaves exude a pleasant volatile odor. And the scent of the flowers has often been likened to strawberries.
The designation “sweet bubby bush” is especially interesting. According to various sources, mountain women used the strongly aromatic flowers as a perfume. They did so by first crushing them and then placing them in their bosom, which gave rise to the nickname “bubby” — an archaic form of the word “boobie.”
For me, the most interesting phase that sweetshrub goes through is when it bears fruit from late summer into fall. This phase was nicely described by Donald Stokes in The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines (The Globe Pequot Press, 1981):
“Sweetshrub has one of the most unusual fruits of any of our common shrubs. When I first saw the plant, I had no idea it was the fruit and approached cautiously with wonder. A shriveled dark-brown sac, about two inches long, was hanging off the branch; in size and shape, it reminded me of a Cecropia [moth] cocoon. As I removed it from the plant, I heard something rattle loosely inside ... I put the sac down on the ground and started to cut it open with a knife. The exterior split easily and had the texture of parchment. I pried apart the outer shell, somewhat apprehensive that I might discover some strange animal inside. To my surprise, the casing was filled with loose brown seeds that, in color and shape, looked much like baked beans.”
Sweetshrub fruits may remain attached to their branches for more than a year and can be found lingering in any season, even when the plant is flowering. There is a stand of four or five of these shrubs down the creek from our house. Every three or so years they flower and fruit profusely. The sacs dangle like brown ornaments against the winter sky.
The seeds are said to be poisonous to humans and livestock, but not to all animals. By January ever year, many of the sacs on my sweetshrubs will have been “robbed”; that is, white-footed mice will have climbed up into the shrubs and gnawed holes in the sacs so as to get at the seeds. I have also observed downy woodpeckers hammering away at the sacs so as to get to the seeds.
Various sweetshrub varieties are available via the Internet. Most display reddish-maroon flowers, but the variety “Athens” has yellow-green flowers and is noted for being “delightfully scented.”