Spicebush

Lindera benzoin

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Illustration of spicebush leaves, flowers, fruit.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Paul Nelson
Edible
Other Common Name
Spice Bush; Northern Spicebush; Common Spicebush; Wild Allspice
Family

Lauraceae (laurels)

Description

Spicebush is a stout, smooth, aromatic shrub of damp woods, usually with several stems from the base.

Leaves do not droop; they are aromatic when crushed, simple, alternate, 2–6 inches long, 1–3 inches wide, broadest above the middle to oval, tip pointed, base narrowing to a sharp angle, margin entire (not toothed or lobed), thin; bright green above; whitish below. Twigs often holding 2 leaf sizes, with much smaller leaves occurring at the base of larger ones. The leaves stay green until mid to late autumn, when they turn greenish yellow.

Bark is light brown to gray, flaking into thin strips; pores prominent, corky, cream-colored. Spicy to the taste.

Twigs are slender, smooth, brittle, greenish brown to brown.

Flowers March–May, appearing before the leaves, yellow, fragrant, about ¼ inch wide, in clusters of 3–6 along the stem, with male and female flowers on separate plants; petals absent; stamens (on male flowers) 9.

Fruits September–October, solitary or in small clusters on short stalks, circular to broadest above the middle, about 3/8 inch long, glossy red, fleshy, spicy, 1-seeded. Seeds light brown, speckled with darker brown, hard.

Similar species: Sassafras is a common, aromatic small tree in the same family, but its leaves occur in characteristic mitten, oval, and three-lobed shapes, and its fruits are dark blue. Pondberry is in the same genus as spicebush and is sometimes called “southern spicebush”; it is similar but only grows to about 6 feet tall; its leaves droop, and both sides are dark green; it is endangered in Missouri, and today’s wild populations occur only in Ripley County.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Stout, smooth shrub to 18 feet tall
  • Leaves aromatic when crushed
  • Leaves don’t droop
  • Leaves bright green above, whitish below
  • Often there are two different leaf sizes on a twig: smaller leaves at the base, larger leaves toward the tip
  • Flowers yellow, fragrant, in clusters of 3–6 along the stem; blooms in spring
  • Fruit glossy red, rounded, fleshy, one-seeded, solitary or in small clusters; fruits in September and October.
Size

Height: to 18 feet.

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Spicebrush Flower
Spicebush Flower
The yellow flower of a spicebush is one of the first blooms in our bottomland forests.

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Spicebush showing oval leaves and red berries
Spicebush
Spicebush
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in low or moist woodlands and thickets along streams, in valleys, in ravine bottoms, along bases of bluffs, along spring branches, in seepy areas of wooded slopes, and along shaded roadsides. Also cultivated as a landscaping plant for its eye-catching, early-blooming flowers and bright red fruits.

Distribution in Missouri

Scattered to common in approximately the southeastern half of the state. People may cultivate it statewide.

Human connections

With its bright, early flowers, attractive fruits, and aromatic leaves, spicebush is a good native plant for a shade garden. People also appreciate it for being an important larval food plant of spicebush swallowtails and promethea silkmoths. Historically, spicebush was made into medicinal tea for treating a variety of ailments, and some people still drink spicebush tea. During the Revolutionary War, the fruit was used as a substitute for allspice.

Ecosystem connections

Spicebush is an important larval host plant for two gorgeous insects, the promethea silkmoth and the spicebush swallowtail. Each swallowtail larva creates a shelter by folding over the leaf it is eating, securing it closed with silk. Except for very small plants, these caterpillars rarely cause serious damage. At least 24 species of birds feed on spicebush fruit, including the wood thrush and veery. Rabbits and deer nibble the leaves.