Spicebush is a stout, smooth, aromatic shrub of damp woods, usually with several stems from the base. The smell of crushed foliage is distinctive.
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.
- 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.