A Woody Shrub: Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
The Northern Spicebush is a member of the Laurel Family (Lauraceae) along with our native Sassafras tree. The leaves of both plants are a favorite food of the Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar. Bright greenish-yellow flowers appear before the leave in the spring, providing food for small bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. In the fall, the foliage turns a beautiful warm yellow that brightens the garden and woodlands.
This woody shrub grows 5 to 12 feet tall, in full sun to full shade (but prefers part shade), and is an excellent shrub for naturalizing. In the late summer, bright red berries (drupes) appear on the female plants providing a high-energy food for migrating birds including vireos, tanagers, robins, and thrushes. To determine if you have a spicebush, crush the leaves or twigs to see if they produce a spicy, pleasant fragrance. The unique oils from this plant were used in folk medicine and as a substitute for allspice.
Fun Northern Spicebush Facts and Stories:
The name Lindera is in honor of the Swedish botanist, John Linder (1676-1723).
Benzoin is old Arabic for a species of Styrax (a plant) from which benzoic acid is obtained. The Spicebush is not a source of benzoin, but when the flowers, fruits, leaves, twigs, or bark are crushed, they have the distinctive spicy aroma of benzoin.
During the Revolutionary War, colonists used the dried, powdered fruits for allspice - a spice previously obtained through trade from England. Hence the origin of the name, "Spicebush."
The Native American Cherokee dried and powdered Spicebush fruits for flavoring in stews, soups, and meats. Cherokee taught the settlers about their many uses for Spicebush including steeping the plant parts for tea. The tea was used as a tonic, a cure for intestinal worms or dysentery, for treating coughs and colds, and as a bath to treat aches and pains (Michigan State Ethnobotany).