By Clint Calhoun
When I lead wildflower hikes in Hickory Nut Gorge, one of the plants that I always have the most fun with is a plant that many people know, but almost never know it by the same name. Calycanthus floridus is the Latin name for a plant that has multiple common names, most of which are determined by the various places that this interesting shrub is found. Because this plant has such a long bloom time and is often the subject of conversation among wildflower enthusiasts, I thought I would highlight it in this issue of the Mountain Breeze.
The most common name for Calycanthus floridus used among the North Carolina botanists that I hang around with is “sweetshrub”. Others call it “Carolina allspice”. I have also heard it referred to as “spicebush”, although this can cause further confusion as there is another shrub called spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that is related to sassafras, but is not related to Calycanthus floridus. I have heard this shrub called “strawberry bush” and “sweet bubby” or “bubby bush” by old-timers and long-time natives of the mountains. Perhaps my favorite common name for this plant is “sweet booby” which comes from the old Appalachian tradition of using the sweet-smelling flowers as perfume. Oral tradition speaks of young ladies who were being “courted” taking the flowers and placing them down in the tops of their dresses so they would have sweet…..,well you get the picture.
Sweetshrub, as I’m going to call it for the purpose of this article, is a favorite spring and early summer flowering plant. It is native to most of North Carolina where it most often grows in rich soils on slopes, cove forests, and in floodplains and bottomlands. It is most easily identified by its almost woody, attractive, maroon flowers that give off a fragrance that can absolutely fill the woods if there’s enough of it in one place. The scent smells like spicy apples to me but I have heard it described as a cross between pineapple, banana, and citrus. Either way, it is delightful. The aromatic oils that are found within the flowers, as well as the bark of the shrub are extracted commercially and used in the perfume industry so there is come credibility to the old-fashioned tales. The bark of sweetshrub is gray and the shrub spreads rhizomatously as well as through seed dispersion by rodents. The elliptical, shiny green leaves will turn a bright yellow in fall, making it a choice plant for native plant gardens. Sweetshrub will produce little fig-shaped seed pods that turn brown with age. Inside are found several pea-sized brown seeds. Mice and chipmunks will climb the branches and out onto the seed pods and will gnaw the bottoms out so that the seeds fall onto the ground. They will then climb down and harvest what they can find, thereby dispersing the seed. What seeds are not found will sprout where they fell.
To further expound on the rodent dispersal aspect, here is an interesting tale that I have heard, but have been unable to find further information about to confirm its veracity. Sweetshrub contains a powerful alkaloid called calycanthine which is similar to strychnine (fact). This alkaloid is poisonous to humans and livestock, however it may be harmful to rodents too (hence its similarity to strychnine). As the story goes, when the rodents gather the seeds, they will store them in caches, along with nuts, berries, and other food items. Naturally, mice and chipmunks don’t remember where they hide all their stuff, so many of those uneaten seeds will sprout where they are hidden, but that’s not the interesting part. Some of those seeds will be consumed by a mouse or a chipmunk. Supposedly, the mouse eats the seed which is poisonous and goes through an agonizing death (convulsions and heart failure). The seed, which survives in the gut of the mouse, will germinate once the mouse has decayed and been returned to the earth (so to speak). As I said, I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is a sensible hypothesis, and if true, I think it’s pretty darn cool and really speaks to how nature manages itself.
Sweetshrub is such a neat plant and so popular with gardeners and wildflower enthusiasts; its long bloom time, and attractive qualities make it worthy of spotlight article. There are so many cool plants that are part of our Southern Appalachian ecosystem as well as our southern heritage (for those readers who are from the South). The more we know about the natural things around us, the more we appreciate them and the more value they have to us. Get outside and learn something!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure. Check out Clint’s blog at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com.