SPICEBUSH! I BRAKED MY MOUNTAIN BIKE hard to take a closer look. I was pleased to see dozens of Lindera benzoin scattered beneath the cottonwood trees, in a section of Schodack Island State Park not yet swamped by invasives. The cottonwoods were bare, and the surrounding weeds still green, so the luminous yellow of the spicebushes gave them center stage on a cloudy fall day. Bike botany, neat native plants, glorious autumn—by George, who could ask for anything more?
I first appreciated spicebush along another trail, the Bronx River Parkway, where it grows in profusion in the damp soil. Indigenous to much of the eastern half of the country, it is a medium-sized understory shrub about 12 feet tall. All parts of the plant have a strong aromatic odor, pleasing in an odd medicinal way. Flowering in very early spring, its clusters of small yellow blossoms are much more demure than brassy forsythia, but attractive nonetheless. Spring flowers sell plants, but whereas you’ll find forsythia for sale in droves at the big boxes, spicebush is more difficult to discover in the nursery trade and sought out only by those in the know (such as you and I). Someday, when the public gains a greater appreciation of our native flora, perhaps the sales figures on these two species will be reversed, with spicebush finding a place in just about every local landscape now occupied by a forsythia.
I’m happy to have a nursery-bought Lindera in my backyard, thriving in partial shade and soil of average moisture and fertility. Although it is described as a facultative wetland dweller, meaning it usually lives where its feet are occasionally damp, mine came through last summer’s drought just fine. Female spicebushes bear small red fruits in September, each about the size of a marble, but mine is decidedly barren. It may be male, or perhaps just juvenile, but finding a confirmed female to plant nearby would be a worthwhile mission for next year. And yes, I agree that being male and being juvenile are often one and the same thing.
Versatility also describes spicebush. It can play a part in a shade garden, a rain garden, or a wildlife garden, too, since it’s fatty fruits feed birds like vireos, thrushes tanagers and robins. The spicebush swallowtail butterfly, a beautiful creature of black, white and blue, lays eggs exclusively on spicebush and other plants in the Laurel Family and the larvae feed on the leaves. The larvae sport large eye-spots, making them look like small snakes, so be prepared if you plant a spicebush. Spicebush silkmoth, a large, handsome moth marked in browns and beiges, also uses it as a food source during its green and horned larval stage. Native Americans and early settlers used the twigs and leaves for a spring tonic tea, found the fruits aided flatulence, bruises and rheumatism, and employed the bark to bring on sweats and expel worms. For many, Lindera is the spice of life.
To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email