Chestnut Herbal School

Sweet Shrub

Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor

Sweet shrub

Sweet shrub

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Sweet shrub or sweet bubbies (Calycanthus floridus, Calycanthaceae) is a fragrant shrub, found in the forest understory of rich hardwood coves, and alongside streams and rivers. Its range includes the southern Appalachians and piedmont. The origin of the name sweet bubbies is not entirely clear, perhaps referencing the historical adorning of breasts with the fragrant flowers. "Bubbies" also seems awful close to "bubba", personages found in ample abundance in these parts.

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Sweet shrub

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Interestingly, the flowers have evolved a captivating pollination strategy. Beetles are attracted by the scent of sweets shrub's nectarless flowers and wiggle into its tightly overlapping tepals (an especially cute botanical term for undifferentiated petals and sepals). Once inside, the beetle, in its struggle to depart, deposits the pollen from a previous flower onto the stigma of the current flower. After one to two days the anthers mature, releasing their pollen onto the temporary prisoner. At this point, the flowers release their grip on the beetle, so it may go forth and spread the good word (Calycanthus DNA, embedded in pollen) to the next flower. It is curious why the beetle would succumb repetitively to these floral shenanigans, as evolution does not favor the idle. Without a reward of nectar or pollen, most insects will stop visiting flowers after a few interactions. Perhaps the scientific community has not spent enough time vision questing under sweet shrubs, or perhaps the aroma of sweet shrub is intoxicating to beetles.

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The Calycanthaceae is a small family with only four species found in North America, China and Australia. It is closely related to the Lauraceae family, which contains many notable aromatic members, such as sassafras, spice bush, camphor and cinnamon. People often note the similarity in flavor of sweet shrub and sassafras.

I use the twigs in tea and mead, with their spicy sweet flavor and aroma. Sweet shrub is a diaphoretic, carminative, stimulant and aromatic bitter. I don't tincture it and mostly use it as a beverage tea, rather than one of my primary therapeutic herbs.

Perhaps in another post, I will explore further the interesting fruits of sweet shrub, which resemble the mummified testicles of a small mammal, and have been used historically by the Cherokee as a wolf poison.

Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:

Juliet Blankespoor

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

Learn more about cultivation, identification, and uses for medicinal herbs in our 1,000-hour Herbal Immersion Program, which is the most comprehensive handcrafted online herbal course out there.

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6 thoughts on “Sweet Shrub

  1. Sweet Shrub has a passing resemblance to the large fruiting Asimina triloba a.k.a. Pawpaw and Indiana Banana; the flowers are similar in color, and both plants are pollinated by beetles with Pawpaw also pollinated by flies and gnats. The shape of the blooms are different.

  2. As far as the name goes, I know the word “Bubbie” to be a Yiddish word meaning grandmother (we called my great grandmother by this name). So perhaps someone associated the smell or flower with their grandmother?
    Thank you Juliet for sharing some of your knowledge through your blog 🙂
    always learning…

  3. Mollie Curry says:

    I’ve been wondering if sweet shrub is the same as the shrub known as “horse sugar.” Seems like sweet shrub leaves are shinier. Do you know what the Latin is for horse sugar? I have tried looking it up with no success.

  4. Jessica Bailey says:

    Hi,
    This information is very interesting, especially your explanation of the pollination event that takes place and that mechanism in the flower. I was wondering if you had any sources for your information that you would be willing to share with me. I’m am doing my senior research on the beetles that commonly pollinate C. floridus and I would be interested to learn more about the plant.
    Thank you!
    Jessica

    • Jessica,
      I sourced the information on the pollination from Wildflowers and Plant Communities by Timothy Spira. I looked for a source in the book, but couldn’t find it. He is a professor at Clemson university, perhaps you could contact him directly. Good luck, sounds like a fun project!

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