Spicebush – An Ecologically Important Native Plant


Spicebush is a flowering shrub native to Eastern North America that is very beneficial to wildlife.  It produces numerous yellow flowers early in the Spring.  Because of this it is sometimes referred to as Wild Forsythia, for the similar appearance (although it is not as showy).  By providing food to pollinators in the form of nectar, forage for several caterpillars, berries for birds, and forage for deer – this plant is an excellent choice for attracting wildlife to your area.  Depending on available sunlight, you can be treated to a beautiful fall display of golden yellow leaves with the Spicebush.  In the wild, it is an understory tree occurring along stream banks, edge of wetlands or ponds inside forests.

A lone Spice Bush set against a backdrop of invasive Bush Honeysuckle, underneath an Oak/Cherry/Hackberry canopy

 Facts

  • Tea can be made from Spicebush leaves/twigs
  • Identification is quite easy, as you just need to tear a leaf in half and smell.  If it smells like Allspice, then it is a Spicebush!
  • Is Native to the woodlands/low lands of Eastern North America
  • Is hardy from zones 4-9.  Check your USDA zone here
  • Native Americans used Spicebush for seasoning, tea, and to treat various ailments

Native Range for Spicebush

Spicebush has a large native range in North America.  From Texas/Kansas to Iowa, East to Michigan/Ontario CA.  Then to Maine, down the entire East Coast to Florida and everywhere in between.

How big does a Spicebush Get?

In proper conditions, Spicebush can grow or form a thicket of 12′ tall and 6′ diameter.

What does Spicebush smell like?

Spicebush by itself has no noticeable odor.  It isn’t until you tear the leaf, fruit or bark.  The crushed leaves, bark, and fruit of Spicebush have a strong aroma of Allspice.  It is very distinct.

What is the Spicebush Growth Rate?

Spicebush can grow 1-2′ per year in proper conditions.  If in a very shaded area, you should expect a much slower growth rate.

Spicebush Physical Description / Identification

Lindera benzoin

The Spicebush is a large shrub, like a small tree.  It is not a small compact ‘front flower bed’ plant.  But, this can make a nice plant out in the open or along a border.  It can also be pruned somewhat to control the shape.

Stalk / Stem

Sometimes having a central trunk with branching, other times multiple trunks.  Branches tend to be slender.  The bark is shiny and brown.

lindera benzoin bark
Bark of Spice Bush, Lindera Benzoin.  For reference, this trunk was about 3/4″ diameter

Leaves

Lindera benzoin leaves

Along the branches there will be alternate leaves that are 3-5″ long, and 2-3″ wide.  Larger leaves are shaped like a long oval.  While shorter leaves are more round.  The underside of the leaf will be white-green, or pale green.  While the top side of the leaf is a medium green color.  If you encounter a plant that you think might be Spicebush but are not sure – just pull a single leaf of and tear it in half and smell it.  You will know that it is Spicebush by the aroma that is similar to Allspice.

Flower

Lindera benzoin flower

The flowers on the Spicebush occur in early to mid-Spring before the shrub leafs out.  Small clusters of blooms will be along the branches and the individual bloom is about 1/8″-1/4″ diameter (3-6 mm).  Spicebush has male and female plants.  Male plants have 9 stamens (little stalk sticking up in the center of the flower) while female flowers have 18 small stamens.  To produce berries, both male and female plants must be present.Lindera Benzoin Flower

If both sex of plant are relatively close, you can obtain small red fruits in Autumn when all the other tree leaves are in good fall color.  If you wish to collect berries for seed, you must act fast.  As soon as the berries are bright red, go collect them from the branches as the birds love to eat the berries!

Spicebush Reference Table

Common NameSpicebush, Wild Allspice
Scientific nameLindera benzoin
Bloom TimeSpring
Bloom DurationApproximately two weeks
ColorYellow
Bloom SizeClusters of flowers along the branches.  Individual blooms are approximately ¼” (6 mm).
CharacteristicsA cluster of small individual flowers, on small branches.  Like Eastern Redbud, the flowers will occur before the leaves.
Spicebush Height6-12’ (2-4 m)
Spice Bush Spacing/Spread6-12’ spread (2-4 m)
Light RequirementsFull sun to full shade.  Better color/growth in full or partial sun.  More berries in partial shade.  Need both male/female plants in an area to produce fruit.
Soil TypesSand/Loam – just needs to be well drained
MoistureWell drained, medium to moist
MaintenanceYou can prune to a shape you like
Typical UseNear ponds/creeks, woodland, borders, North Side of house
Fauna AssociationsSmall bees/flies pollinate Spicebush.  Caterpillars of several butterflies eat the foliage.  Birds eat the berries.
Larval HostSpicebush Swallowtail, Promethea Moth, Tulip Tree Beautyspicebush swallowtail butterfly
Sowing Depth¼”-1/2” (6-12 mm) – press seed out of berries
Stratification60-90 days cold stratification.  Or direct sow in Autumn/Winter – You need fresh seed!
Native RangeUSDA Zones 4-9, Eastern North America
Notes 

Growing Conditions for Spicebush

A Spicebush thicket, growing among Black Walnut and other trees on a nature trail.

Spicebush will grow best in partial shade.  Although it is versatile enough to grow in either full sun or full shade, the amount of sunlight will effect the growth of the plant.  So, on the extreme East or West side of a house would be a good choice, where it would only get sun in the morning or afternoon (less than 6 hours).  The largest specimens I’ve observed were in a somewhat open woodland.  So, those plants received sun most of the day, but was filtered through taller trees.  This matches studies that showed that woodland patches that had canopy disturbance from falling trees (thereby giving more sunlight) had the highest growth rates and produced the most fruit.

For soil and moisture, Spicebush likes loamy or sandy soil – aka well draining.  It also likes to have medium to moist soil.

How to care for Spicebush

If you have planted Spicebush in a location that provides partial shade, and moist to medium soil it should not require special care.  Individual plants should be protected when establishing due to possible deer browsing.  But if in full sun, try to ensure that it will receive enough water, as it doesn’t like drought.

How to Grow Spicebush from seed

In order to grow Spicebush from seed, you need to locate a mature berry producing plant first.  Collect the small red fruits in early Autumn when they are bright red.  You must act quickly, as birds love to eat all the fruits.  Once you have some seed, follow the process below for germinating Spicebush seeds.  Spicebush seeds need to experience a winter before they will sprout.  So, you need to either winter-sow the seed or cold-moist stratify them for 120 days.

Spicebush fruit berries
Collect those seeds early!
  • Fill pots with moist potting soil or seed-starting mix until 1″ below the top.
  • Squeeze the seeds out of the berries, place them on top of the moist potting soil
  • Cover with approximately 3/8″ (9 mm) of moist soil
  • Gently pat or tamp the soil
  • Water, and place outside under some kind of plastic container with holes poked in the top and sides, to allow for air movement and some sunlight penetration.

Garden Uses for Spicebush

Spicebush can be used to make a natural hedge or thicket along the borders of forest.  It can be adapted for general landscaping, but you may not get the pretty yellow fall color.  In order to have berries be produced, you must have male and female plants in the same general area.

Currently I have one Spicebush that is thriving in my backyard, at the corner or our deck.  The first year it did not grow much, only around 6″ tall (15 cm).  However, it since then it has risen to about 2′ tall.  This plant is in full sun, and is in a bit of a low spot where one of my rain gutters discharges.  So, the ground is naturally moist.  I have it fenced in, and will keep it fenced in for some time until I feel it is able to take some deer browsing.  Now, I have planted some seeds this year from berries I collected in the hopes of getting some additional plants started at the edge of the forest that is adjacent to our backyard, as the conditions there are right for Spicebush.

Fauna Associations – Spicebush

Spicebush is one of those rare plants that can do it all when it comes to benefiting wildlife in North America!  You get bees and butterflies in early Spring, deer/rabbits and other mammals browsing leaves throughout the year.  And finally, if it produces berries, some 20+ species of birds will visit in Autumn.  Also in Autumn, you can be treated to a beautiful gold display of fall colors.

Papilio troilus
Spicebush Swallowtail will lay eggs on leaves of Spicebush

Pests and diseases

No serious diseases seem to effect Spicebush.  For pests, small plants should be protected.  Preferably by a fence or cage that prevents deer or rabbits from devouring the young seedling.  Once fully grown, or at least 6′ tall, the fence can probably be removed.

Is the Spicebush Edible?

The Spice Bush has been used by Native Americans for a wide variety of things.  Tribes of the Eastern United States (Iroquois, Cherokee, Creek, Rappannock, etc) used for anything from inducing sweat, reducing fever, general tonic, and cold medicine.  If you really research this you will find that it was used in some way to treat almost any ailment.

It was also used for food though – primarily as a seasoning.  The fruits could be dried and ground up to add when Allspice wasn’t available for seasoning meat.  Leaves could also be used in this regard.

We’ve written a detailed article on how Spicebush has been used historically as a food and medicine.  Many Native American Tribes as well as colonists utilized this plant.

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Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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