Patrick and I are hunting for land to purchase, hoping to fulfill our vision of homesteading and on-site herbal education. We have spent many hours wandering through private woodlands for sale in northern Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties-- what I like to think of as Glorified Trespassing. It's been a nice opportunity to experience western NY forests outside of our well-worn hiking trails.
When I encounter spicebush (Lindera benzoin) growing under hardwoods, I feel a little thrill. I pluck a leaf, crunch it between my fingers, and inhale the aroma deeply. Spicebush possesses one of the most pleasantly intoxicating scents I have ever experienced. The fact that this shrub is native to my home region makes it particularly sweet.
Identification & Cultivation
Spicebush is an early bloomer, revealing yellow flowers in early- to mid-spring. Like its aromatic cousin sassafras, spicebush is dioecious, with male and female plants. Female flowers are aromatic and produce small, bright red fruit called drupes. The twigs and drupes are aromatic like the leaves; give them a scratch with your fingernail to release the scent.
I was happy to learn that deer avoid spicebush for forage, like other "overly" smelly herbs including lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme. I typically find spicebush in part-shade, making it an excellent choice for shady gardens. Spicebush can handle full sun to full shade, and the yellow autumn color may be brighter with more sun exposure. Spicebush may reach 12' in height and width, and occupies agricultural zones 4-9. Be sure to plant both male and female plants if you're hoping for drupes.
Traditional + Tasty Uses
Native people were acquainted with spicebush long before white colonists arrived. Cherokee individuals drank spicebush tea as a general tonic, for menstrual discomfort, and as a cold remedy. Mohegan kids chewed spicebush twigs for deworming, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) used it to open the pores and gently lower fever.
Spicebush isn't often mentioned in new herbal medicine books. The uses described by white US physicians of the 1800s reflect the health challenges of their time. Spicebush was recommended for managing fevers, for dysentery, and expelling worms in children. (I wonder where they learned that from?) Several publications of the time brush spicebush off as a 'layperson's herb,' best known by country folk. The Civil War left southerners seeking alternatives to black tea, and spicebush leaves were popular. Since the Revolutionary War, Americans have used the powdered berries as an allspice substitute.
Today, Americans' health challenges have changed, and so have our reasons to turn to spicebush as a remedy. When we ingest aromatic herbs or spices-- including those in our kitchen pantry-- we can bet on some digestive support thanks to the volatile oils. The aromatics of these "carminative" herbs may stimulate capillary blood flow in the GI tract, and ease bloating by moving gas through the intestines. (Of course, a chronic issue should be investigated for root causes.) A 2008 study points to spicebush's potential anti-fungal properties. The bark extract "strongly inhibited" the growth of a fungus associated with athlete's foot, and Candida albicans.
To make a tea of the leaves, pour 1 cup boiled water over 2-5 tsp chopped herb (fresh or dried). Cover and steep 10-20 min. Strain and enjoy.
To make a bark tea, I chop fresh or dried twigs with pruners or kitchen shears; they break easily. Simmer 1-2 Tbsp twigs per cup water, covered, for 8-10 minutes. Allow to sit and steep 30 min. Strain and enjoy.
I enjoy adding fresh or dried drupes to chai beverages, or simmering around 1 Tbsp/cup water for 15 min and and drinking solo.
The drupe has both sweet and savory applications. Use like allspice in a variety of sweet baked goods. The peppery bite of the seeds makes drupes a nice choice for marinades and rubs. A coffee grinder works fine for making a powder, if that's what you need.
If you read my article about invasive plant medicine, you know that there are abundant, vigorous medicinal plants we can respectfully harvest with minimal concern about ecosystem impact. Reducing the population of Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard may even be doing the ecosystem a favor.
Spicebush, on the other hand, is not a wiley invasive. Though I have found it to be locally abundant enough to feel comfortable using it, I am careful to make harvesting decisions that do minimal harm to the plant or population, to my knowledge. Tips:
Harvest from areas where spicebush is abundant.
When harvesting leaves or twigs, take several from each plant, rather than significantly impacting one plant. Remove those that seem to receive less sunlight, in hopes of having the least impact on the plant's photosynthesis.
When harvesting twigs, snip just above a node (where branching or leaf growth happens). Leaving a long nub above a node may increase the risk of infection.
When harvesting drupes, I feel best about taking 20% or less. Leave some for the birds and other wildlife. Plant some drupes+seeds nearby.
Wildlife + Spicebush
Spicebush drupes are eaten by various bird and small mammal species. The plant offers shelter for these critters as well. Approximately ten native moth and butterfly species, small bees, and flies are attracted to the flowers, which serve as a nectar source at a time when little else is blooming.
Spicebush and its close relatives serve as hosts to spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. This species' existence depends on these plants. Let's harvest with care, and cultivate when possible.
Lloyd and Lloyd. Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887. www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/dmna/lindera.html
Millspaugh, Charles F. American Medicinal Plants. 1974.