Lindera benzoin, better known as spicebush or wild allspice, is a deciduous shrub belonging to the Lauraceae, or laurel family. It earned its common names from its highly aromatic leaves and berries.
Spicebush is easy to identify, edible, and even a host for butterflies, bees, and birds. Although not a common choice, spicebush is an excellent addition to gardens, as it is beautiful, multipurpose, and beneficial to local wildlife.
Spicebush is a tall growing, easy to identify shrub with several edible parts. The shrub is not only beneficial to humans, but insects and woodland mammals as well.
As an edible, you want to be able to distinguish spicebush from common look-alikes. Growing spicebush in your own garden isn’t difficult, but there are a few things to be aware of.
If you’re a forager or homesteader, here is what you need to know about this useful native plant.
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How to Identify Spicebush
Spicebush is a tall growing shrub. It usually grows between 5-12 feet in height, but specimens have been documented at up to 15 feet tall. And it can grow as wide as it grows tall.
There are both male and female shrubs, which you can identify by looking closely at the flowers in summer. However, towards the end of summer and early autumn, you’ll notice that some shrubs have bright red berries growing from branches. These berries only grow on female shrubs, making it easier to determine.
Spicebush leaves grow in alternate patterns along branchlets.
Leaves are oblong and hairless. There is a species of laurel known as hairy spicebush, that has hairy leaves. But if the leaves are smooth, then you have northern spicebush. The leaves grow up to 5” long and nearly 3” wide. Leaves also have smooth edges.
When leaves first appear, and through summer, they are a pleasant green, and very aromatic. The leaves change color with fall. With the turn of autumn, the leaves turn a striking golden yellow.
Many foragers find spicebush most beautiful in autumn, when it has the golden leaves. The leaves drop in winter, and reappear in spring, after the flowers.
Spicebush flowers bloom in early spring, usually around March or April. The dense clusters of greenish yellow flowers are very noticeable when they first flower, before the leaves emerge. Each flower is only ¼” big.
Male and female flowers have different characteristics. Female flowers have six sepals and no petals. Each female flower has an ovary and up to 18 infertile staminodes.
These staminodes produce nectar. Male flowers are larger and showier. Each flower has 9 stamens divided into three groups, and the 3 innermost stamens have nectar glands at their bases.
Spicebush flowers give way to glossy scarlet fruit. However, the fruit can be difficult to notice before the leaves drop. The berrylike drupes are oblong, rather than spherical. The drupes are usually only 1cm big. The soft outside encapsulates a hard seed.
Drupes usually appear between August and September. Fruit is usually ripe in fall. Drupes are very juicy and aromatic. The fruit is said to smell like allspice. Although both male and female spicebush shrubs have flowers, only the females produce drupes.
Trunk and branches
Spicebush trunks, branches, and branchlets are also unique. The bark ranges in color from a shiny brown to an olive green.
The trunk and branches are also distinguishable because they are covered in small white lenticels. From a distance, these little lenticels along the branches look like salt sprinkled on a pretzel.
These lenticels also act as pores, allowing for the exchange of gases. Not only do the lenticels look cool, but they also help the plant breathe.
Spicebush bark, like the leaves, fruit, and flowers, are also aromatic. However, while the other parts of the shrub smell like allspice, the bark has a sweeter scent, akin to cinnamon.
Where Spicebush Grows
Spicebush is much more common on the east coast of the United States than on the West. The shrub thrives in shady, moist areas. It usually doesn’t grow further west than Texas, as it cannot survive the extreme heat and direct sun of the southwest.
Spicebush can usually be found near creeks, wetlands, and lakes. It grows near Florida swamplands and even in Chicago, close to Lake Michigan. It is much more common in southern Illinois than the Chicago region, and grows abundantly throughout Maine.
Spicebush grows in hardiness zones 4-9. It can tolerate winter lows between -30℉ (-34.4℃) and 30℉ (-1.1℃).
Although it is much more common in Maine and other northeast states, the shrub can be found as far south as Florida and Texas. Even though these states experience much warmer winters, they have other conditions that are favorable to spicebush.
Spicebush prefers moist, slightly basic soil rich in organic matter. You’ll often find it near creeks, rivers, and lakes.
The shrub doesn’t do as well near salt or brackish water. The shrub often grows in bottomlands and on slopes, where there is plenty of runoff.
Spicebush also does well in clay and limestone rich soils. However, the shrub also tolerates drought. It can grow well in mesic soils. But because of its sun preferences, you won’t find it in prairies as much as you’ll find it in thickets.
Spicebush grows in shady areas. You can usually find it in thick woodlands and coastal regions. The plant can tolerate between 4-6 hours of direct sunlight a day but prefers dappled sunlight.
In southern Illinois, the plant thrives when it has occasional exposure to direct sunlight for a few hours. Spicebush usually grows under the canopy of large sugar maple and American beech trees.
The occasional disturbance in the larger trees looming over spicebush that provides a little extra sun helps the shrub thrive. A recent study even found that the shrubs exposed to more direct sunlight actually produced bigger, brighter flowers.
Spicebush is hardly the only shrub that grows bright red berries. Because of this, it may be hard to determine that you have found spicebush, and not something similar.
While many look alike plants also have edible berries, when you are dealing with edibles you always want to be certain about what it is you are consuming. Although spicebush is usually easy to identify, it is still important to be able to distinguish it from a few similar shrubs.
Cornus florida, known as flowering dogwood, is a deciduous tree native to the eastern United States and northern Mexico. Since dogwood usually grows between 15 and 30 feet tall, you could mistake a small dogwood for a tall spicebush.
Additionally, dogwood produces berries that are very similar to spicebush berries. The berries are shiny and red, and the same size as spicebush drupes. However, the arrangement of berries makes it easy to determine which plant you have found.
Dogwood berries grow in tight clusters, while spicebush berries each have their own tiny stalk. Furthermore, flowering dogwood has an opposite leaf pattern, instead of alternating.
Lindera melissifolia, known as pondberry, belongs to the same genus as spicebush. In fact, the two are similar enough that pondberry is also known as southern spicebush. But if dogwood is a tall spicebush impersonator, then pondberry is a short one.
Pondberry usually only grows up to 6 feet tall. Pondberry typically grows in wetlands and has several characteristics in common with spicebush.
For example, its leaves grow in an alternate pattern, and it produces similar fruit to spicebush. However, you can distinguish pondberry from spicebush by looking at the leaves. Pondberry leaves are droopier, and a much darker green.
Pondberry is also much less common than spicebush. Pondberry is classified as an endangered species in Missouri. Furthermore, you won’t find it outside of Missouri’s Ripley county.
All parts of spicebush are edible
Spicebush’s zesty aroma isn’t a trick. The plant’s leaves and fruit are both edible. The shrub is also called wild allspice because the leaves and berries taste similar to allspice and sassafras.
Berries and leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. Bark, on the other hand, tastes more like cinnamon. Generally, foragers agree that spicebush parts are better used in tea or as seasoning, rather than a main ingredient.
Leaves can be used for tea
Spicebush leaves can be brewed into a tea. All you have to do is:
- Collect a handful of leaves.
- Place them in a jar and fill the jar with cool or room temperature water.
- Tighten the lid on the jar and shake it until the leaves sink to the bottom.
- Leave the closed jar with the leaves out in the sun for six hours.
- After six hours, strain the leaves, pouring the tea into a cup.
- It should have a yellow tinge.
The tea is best in spring or summer, as leaves lose their flavor come autumn. You can also heat twigs in water over the stove for five minutes, and then let sit for five minutes, for a hot tea with a cinnamon-like flavor.
If you’re interested in brewing your own spicebush tea, here is a great video that shows you exacty how to do it:
Leaves have medicinal properties as well
The species name benzoin is derived from the medicinal compound benzoin. Spicebush leaves are rich in benzoin, which is commonly used to treat sore throats.
Many foragers brew leaves into a tea to treat sore throats or migraines. Additionally, essential oils from spicebush are commonly used for aromatherapy.
And as a bonus, you can actually rub down leaves in your hands, and rub the leaves along your limbs for a natural mosquito repellent.
Berries have a very strong flavor
The most popular way to prepare berries is to dry them out, grind them into a powder, and sprinkle the powder over a dish as a seasoning. his powder is a popular alternative to allspice.
Many foragers like to season meat with spicebush berry powder, as the sweetness provides a nice contrast to the savory meat.
The berries can also be eaten raw. Raw berries bitten into have a strong, bitter flavor. The flavor has been compared to citrus rinds, such as grapefruit rind.
Here is a great video on harvesting and drying spiceberries:
Spicebush is an important species in wild habitats. Although the plant doesn’t thrive in extreme heat, it has a low flammability rating. Furthermore, deer, rabbits, opossums, and birds feed on drupes and seeds that fall to the ground.
Since drupes are high in fat and become ripe during autumn, they provide important nutrition for birds before winter.
Aside from birds, spicebush has important interactions with insects. The spicebush is the host for spicebush swallowtail butterflies and promethea silk moth.
Spicebush swallowtails lay their eggs on leaves, and then fold the leaves over the eggs for protection with their silk. Moth cocoons also hang from the bush during winter, after the leaves have dropped. They also support several species of caterpillar.
Insects are important for spicebush survival as well. Female spicebush shrubs need males for pollination. Many insects that live and feed on the shrub also cross pollinate it.
Since wild allspice, like other plants, are immobile, they need to be near a shrub of the opposite sex. Many insects help with reproduction by transferring the pollen of a male to a female.
Growing Spicebush in Your Garden
Spicebush makes an excellent addition to one’s garden. The bush is beautiful, provides delicious fruit and leaves, and supports local wildlife.
Additionally, the tall growing shrubs are perfect to plant along the edge of your garden, as they can act like a fence and give your yard some privacy.
The basics of growing spicebush
Spicebush is relatively easy to grow. The plant prefers partial shade and moist, alkaline soils, but isn’t overly fussy.
Generally, a pH of 8 in the soil is alkaline enough. And since spicebush thrives in soils rich in clay, limestone, or other organic matter, don’t be afraid to supplement the soil with compost.
And remember that the plant usually grows near bodies of water, so if you live in a dry area, you may have to water the plant regularly.
Seeds lose viability as they dry out
The best way to grow spicebush is by planting seeds. You can buy seeds online, or harvest seeds which can be found in the berries. To harvest the seeds from the berries of this plant, you just need to squeeze the fruit or cut it open.
The drupe is soft, and it is easy to get to the seed. The best times to plant the seeds are late summer or autumn. If you harvest seeds and just leave them in a pantry for a few months, they can dry out. It’s best to plant freshly harvested seeds.
Leave room for growth!
Spicebush grows tall and wide. So, you should take size into consideration when growing spicebush from seed; those little seedlings could end up being almost treelike in size eventually! You’ll want to space out seeds, but not too much.
A good rule of thumb is to leave 8-12 feet between seeds. Spicebush can get wide, but rarely eclipses 12 feet, and very rarely reaches 15 feet. You also want to plant the seeds pretty shallow.
Just ¼” deep in the soil is deep enough for spicebush to grow. Remember, in nature, seeds grow after dropping to the ground, so they don’t need to be buried deep to thrive.
Wild allspice isn’t a difficult plant to grow, but it is susceptible to laurel wilt. Laurel wilt is caused by a deadly fungus that is introduced to the shrub via redbay ambrosia beetle.
Symptoms of laurel wilt include brown leaves and spikes of ambrosia beetle sawdust sticking out of the trunk of the laurel. Laurel wilt has been a persistent problem in Florida.
It has also occurred in the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Some fungicides have been tested, but questions remain about their efficacy. If you decide to plant wild allspice, be diligent, and remove any shrubs that are infected.
Spicebush is a great substitute for invasive honeysuckle
Honeysuckle, like spicebush, is a fragrant, colorful shrub growing throughout the United States. However, honeysuckle is not native to many regions. On the contrary, honeysuckle is considered an invasive species in the United States.
In northeast states, spicebush is a suggested native alternative to the invasive honeysuckle. If you want to pull out your honeysuckle and replace it with something native, spicebush is an excellent native alternative because it has similar characteristics and behaviors.
Overall, spicebush is a great plant to start with if you are new to foraging or gardening. The plant is easily identifiable and pretty low maintenance.
Additionally, giving spicebush a few years to grow around the edges of your yard will save you money, since you won’t have to buy a fence or pay to have it installed.
Spicebush will bring beautiful butterflies, cute caterpillars, and songbirds to your garden, all while keeping pesky neighbors out! So, if you’re a homesteader or a forager, get to know more about this pant as soon as you can.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.