Spicebush is a slow growing, deciduous perennial shrub that grows from 3 to 9 feet tall, with a rather tidy, rounded shape and leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall. In its native habitat across most of the eastern North America, the spicebush is an understory plant found in open forests and stream edges in rich, moist soil. One established in the home garden, it is fairly drought tolerant, preferring partial shade to full sun. It is a low maintenance plant, and because its spicy taste is a turnoff for deer and rabbits, it is fairly nibble-proof.
Tiny greenish yellow flowers appear on stalks in the early spring, preceding the plant's leaves. The flowers on male plants are showier, but while the female flowers are insignificant they turn into beautiful, shiny red fruits called drupes—a term that refers to fleshy fruits surrounding a hard stone, likeplums, peaches, and olives. Around the time the leaves turn a soft yellow in the fall, the drupes ripen to a bright, contrasting red, attracting birds and some mammals. You might spot the spicebush tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) which lays its eggs on the leaves to provide food for its newly hatched caterpillars.
Catterpillar and adult spicebush swallowtail butterfly
A member of the laurel family, American spicebush gets its common name from the fragrance, of its bark, fruit, and leaves, described (according to The Herb Society of America) as "citrusy-spicy or woodsy floral, not unlike allspice." Some other names for the shrub spring from that scent—spicewood, wild allspice—in addition to names of other origin others, such as fever bush, Benjamin Bush, and snapwood. The plant's scientific name, Lindera benzoin, honors Swedish botanist Johann Lindler (1676-1723); the "benzoin" part of the name references another shrub with the same aroma and flavor.
Spicebush has a long culinary and medicinal history. Some American Indian tribes considered spicebush to have medicinal properties; they also made a culinary beverage from plant parts and flavoring from the drupes. Early American settlers used a spicy beverage brewed from spicebush as a remedy for ailments, including dysentery and intestinal parasites. Daniel Fromson reports in The Atlantic that during the Revolutionary War, New Englanders substituted dried, powdered spicebush berries for allspice, which could no longer be imported from British-held Jamaica, and Civil War soldiers drank spicebush tea because coffee was often unavailable. This and other recipes using various parts of the spicebush are available online, although no part of the shrub has officially been determined safe for human consumption.Spicebush oil may be added to perfumes to accentuate a spicy scent.
For its beauty, its benefits for wildlife, and its rich culinary and medicinal history, wouldn’t the spicebush make a delightful addition to your garden?
Written by Monica Buckley
The Herb Society of America: “Essential Facts for Spicebush” https://www.herbsociety.org/herbs/documents/Linderabenzoin_000.pdf
Missouri Botanical Garden: “Lindera benzoin” http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=d89
The Grit: “American Spicebush: An Understated Beauty with History” http://www.grit.com/farmandgarden/americanspicebush.aspx
The Atlantic: “A Spice You Can Find in Your Backyard”