My sweet bubby bushes (Calycanthus floridus) are in full bloom and my nose is happy! Every afternoon I look forward to when they release their enigmatic fragrance. If the temperature and humidity are right, it wafts around the house to the front porch. If you visit me in the garden, you are likely to see me with my nose pressed against one of these treasured blooms. My neighbors may think I am in love with these shrubs. I am.
The sweet bubby bush is also known as sweetshrub, Carolina allspice, and sweet-betsy. All its common names point to its most well-known attribute – fragrance.
What’s fragrant about a sweet bubby bush? Everything!
Let’s start with the flowers. Garden visitors have described them as smelling like apples, cantaloupes, pineapples, strawberries, raisins, spices, curry or combinations of these. Although not as showy as a camellia or magnolia, the flowers have been prized for their hard-to-describe fragrance by generations of Southerners. The flowers were sometimes carried to school or church in handkerchiefs. Body warmth helped release the flower’s fragrance which would rouse the spirit of the holder when the teaching or preaching dragged on. Before the advent of deodorant and air-conditioning, planting a sweet bubby bush in the churchyard may have been a practical as well as an aesthetic choice!
The rest of the plant is also fragrant. The leaves, stems, seed pods, even the roots have a spicy camphor-like fragrance. Pruning a sweet bubby bush is a refreshing treat.
The flowers are about the size of a nickel and range in color from brick red to maroon. A cultivar named ‘Athens’ has yellowish green flowers and is especially fragrant. It was discovered in Athens, Georgia, and is becoming more widely available every year.
Native from Virginia to Florida and Mississippi, the sweet bubby bush blooms from March to May depending on location. Its leaves turn yellow in the fall. Although native to woodlands, it will grow in full sun as well as shade. It can reach six to nine feet tall with an equal spread, but is usually and easily kept much smaller.
The sweet bubby bush can be combined with forsythia, camellia, viburnums, nandina, Japanese clerya, blueberry, pomegranate, kerria, azaleas, and other shrubs. It is easy to grow. There are no major pest problems. Pruning is best done after blooming, since the shrub flowers on the previous year’s growth.
-- Arty Schronce
Arty Schronce lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages everyone to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening.