Spicy Girl

Early flower of Lindera benzoin in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Early flower of Lindera benzoin (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

When I decided to incorporate more natives into the landscape, Lindera benzoin, commonly known as spice bush, was one of the first shrubs I introduced to my gardens. An early bloomer in my Connecticut garden, it is usually covered in tiny clusters of pale, greenish yellow bud-like flowers from late March through early April.  Named for the spicy fragrance (sort of citrusy) emitted from its bark and crushed leaves, this member of the laurel family is native to eastern North America (zones 4-9) and often seen as an understory shrub within moist woodlands.

Lush foliage of Lindera benzoin in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Lush foliage of Lindera benzoin (photo by: phytoimages.edu)

Although Lindera benzoin naturally loves to spread its roots in sun drenched marshes or moist, lightly shaded woody areas, you might be surprised to find that it can perform equally well in less accommodating locations.  Much less.  Consider clay soil, severely dry soil or shady spots where nothing else will survive . . . viola . . . spice bush to the rescue! This aromatic lady is voluptuous in shape, with a rounded physique often accentuated with multiple trunks.  Typically growing from 6 to 12 feet (depending on sun exposure and location), Lindera benzoin is a deciduous shrub that develops a rich green foliage made up of oval leaves (some to 5 inches long) in summer, turning to brilliant yellow gold in the fall.

Common Spice Bush berry in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

The much loved Spice Bush berry (photo by: daufuskieslandconservancy.org)

While the overall shape of spice bush is pleasing in a garden border, and its spotted trunk adds an element of interest during the dormant months, it is the berries produced each autumn that make it a wonderful addition to my property.  Albeit very short-lived (they’re gone before I can get a picture!) the glossy crimson berries of spice bush, called drupes, are adored by many local birds such as American Robin, Northern Bobwhite, Grey Catbird, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher and Northern Mockingbird.  Raccoons, skunks and opossums are also thought to enjoy this fruit, while the smaller fauna family of squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks love to create habitats under spice bush’s protective canopy.

Spice bush's open shape in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

Spice bush’s open shape (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Early settlers recognized that anywhere Lindera benzoin grew meant the soil was moist and fertile, often searching for such locations.  The spice bush was also utilized by both farmers and Indians; berries were crushed and used to season foods (similar taste to allspice) or steamed to suppress coughing, while bark and leaves were used as a compress for rashes, bruises and other skin irritations.  It is important to note that spice bush is dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants) like many other fruiting shrubs, so you’ll need a male to make things happen.  If you purchase shrubs while flowering, the male has a larger flower, which should help in determining the sex.  Or, you can take your chances (as I do) and buy several, playing the odds.  In addition, because the foliage is quite dense, you may not spot the berries unless the leaves drop, and by then all your feathered friends will have feasted on the bounty you provided anyway.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer https://agardenforall.com

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

For the butterfly lovers out there (aren’t we all?), you’ll be happy to know that the spice bush is the host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies, meaning the larva of these members of the Lepidoptera family feed on the leaves of this shrub. So, as you make your rounds through the local nurseries this spring, put a few spicy girls on the cart, you’ll be glad you did . . . and so will the local wildlife!

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