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Spicebush – Wild Allspice for Your Woodland Garden

Posted by: Arthur’s Point Farm

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November 30, 2023

Every autumn, when we dig up our spicebush seedlings, we are struck by the strong pleasant aroma of the fibrous root systems (as well as all other parts of the plant). Spicebush has many favorable qualities which explain its growing popularity as a native ornamental shrub in cultivated gardens. Its adaptability, ecological value, aesthetic appeal, flavor, and aroma add up to make a desirable plant for many gardens or woodlands, even for those with areas of deep shade.

Also known as Northern spicebush or wild allspice, Lindera benzoin berries provide forage for at least twenty known bird species and various pollinating insects. Its strong aroma may provide some protection from browsing deer, although perhaps not enough in areas with high deer pressure like here in Columbia County. Several insects feed on the leaves, and it’s a larval host to the easily recognizable spicebush swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio troilus). Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), another member of the laurel family, is the only other spicebush swallowtail host in our region. Several times this season we’ve been surprised to see the spicebush swallowtail’s amazing mimicry defense on display in our nursery. They’ve evolved to camouflage themselves as bird droppings, snakes, or other foul-tasting butterflies.

Spicebush is a deciduous shrub that grows well in woodland understories and prefers moist, well-drained soil. It spreads via seed or root sprouts, so it can form thickets under favorable conditions. Spicebush is also dioecious, meaning only some trees bear fruit and more than one is needed to ensure pollination. It tolerates sunnier sites and can be found in much of the eastern US, though like many of our well-loved native plants, is rarer to find today due to loss of habitats and the proliferation of non-native species.

Another benefit of spicebush is its seasonal interest. Early spring blooms in a thicket will give an entire woodland a yellow tinge and its fall foliage provides an attractive splash of yellow on the landscape. Ripe red berries are well-loved by wildlife and humans. According to the Cornell Botanic Gardens, the leaves and stems have been used to season game by the Cherokee and Chippewa peoples. The Haudenosaunee, Creek, and Rappahannock have used various parts of the plant for medicinal purposes. Post colonization, spicebush has been used for the same purposes and as a replacement for allspice. The berries can be used green or ripe (exhibiting different flavors) and the leaves and young twigs are edible as well. 

Spicebush is a treat to find in the woods. Though it has been called the “forsythia of the wilds” because of its cheery yellow flowers in early spring, we feel this is a misnomer. Forsythia is not native to the Americas and is reviled by many for its aggressive spreading. Though it too is a harbinger of spring, forsythia does not support our native pollinators in any meaningful way. 

Check out our friends at the How to Cook a Weed blog to learn more about how to use spicebush to make dried spices and fresh curry spice pastes. If you are foraging for spicebush berries, be aware that there are a few look-alikes that should not be consumed by humans! Grow your own spicebush to add to your warm apple cider, and sip it while observing the wildlife enjoying the shrubs you’ve planted to share with them.

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