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.
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.
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.