Cherishing Spicebush

This spicy, lemony shrub with its rich history needs a reintroduction into the kitchens and medicine cabinets of North America.

  • Red berries, actually oval-shaped drupes, appear on female plants and can be dried, frozen, and used in sweet and savory dishes.
    Photo by Flickr/Ian Gardner
  • Spicebush leaves turn yellow in fall.
    Photo by Flickr/Uli Lorimer
  • Spicebush plants produce beautiful, pale-yellow flowers.
    Photo by Flickr/Matt Bright

I vividly remember the first time I encountered a spicebush (Lindera benzoin). I was a sophomore in college in a taxonomy class that traveled around Ohio’s forests learning to identify its native trees. We had been deep inside the woods for several hours that day. The canopy overhead had just begun to thin, and I could see a meadow at the end of our path just a bit ahead. As the forest transitioned into the clearing, there were more shrubs in between the trees, and my professor stepped off the path to stand beside one in particular. He introduced the shrub as spicebush, and we all began to take notes on the bud shape, bark appearance, and leaf venation. With my head bent down over my paper, I barely noticed when he plucked a leaf, crumpling it up before he passed it to me. But as soon as I had it in my hand, I stopped writing. The spicy, lemony scent that jolted my senses seemed to wash the leaf-covered forest floor around me in yellow.

Spicebush Recipes

Wild Allspice Java Rub with Spicebush
Fever Chai with Spicebush

A Spicebush History

Spicebush is best known here in the Ohio Valley, but it can be found from Maine to Florida, as far west as Kansas, and in parts of Texas. It is happiest just inside the edge of the forest but can successfully be grown out in the open with strong attention to its watering. The bush has a long American history that is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

When European settlers first arrived in the Americas, they would have had to struggle with many elements of homesickness — particularly the loss of familiarity with the plants around them. Seeds were surely transported, and some even thrived in the New World, but many of the plants that colonists depended on for food, medicine, dye, and textiles had to be left behind. This meant that settlers needed to quickly understand which plants could serve as substitutes for lost staples.

If you’re in a strange place and need to know the landscape, the logical thing to do is to ask the natives. One of the important plants the Cherokee people taught early settlers about was spicebush. Spices have moved humans from place to place, started civilizations, and founded empires. Here on the temperate shores of the U.S., the bright spices cinnamon and ginger don’t grow, but we’ve always had milder and cooler substitutes. Spicebush berries can be used as a replacement for allspice, and the powdered bark makes a serviceable cinnamon.

Spicebush is known as fever bush, Benjamin bush, snap-wood, wild allspice, Appalachian spice, spice wood, and “forsythia of the forest” to name a few. Beyond its culinary use, Native Americans taught the settlers about the ways they used spicebush as a medicine. This native population used the leaves, bark, berries, and sap in various ways. Internally, they prized the plant for its diaphoretic properties, or its ability to induce sweating. Native people used spicebush to ease colds, cough, fever, and measles. Externally, they used oil from the pressed berries to ease the pain of arthritis. They used all parts of the plant interchangeably as compresses (external applications of cloth soaked in tea) for rashes, itching, or bruises, and they also used it to remove internal parasites.

Spice Brad
6/29/2019 5:53:43 AM

I recently discovered Spice Bush, last spring I noticed bright yellow leaves when all other leaves were still brown. Then the yellow blossoms fall off and green leaves appear. Then this summer I saw green berries appear on some. Out of about 100 trees, 12 have berries. There berries should turn red in the fall if birds don't eat them first.

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