On a walk recently I noticed one of the first native shrubs to flower this spring—Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Its small, yellowish-green flowers really stood out among the sea of bare branches. Spicebush is dioecious, with male flowers on one plant and female flowers on another.
If you find this plant, you can really only identify its sex by looking at the flowers. The inflorescence, or arrangement of the flowers, on the male shrub is a cluster each with a round set of nine stamens. The female shrub’s inflorescence is a cluster of flowers each with a bowling pin-shaped pistil. There aren’t as many female shrubs in the wild as males. The ratio is approximately one female for every ten males.
The pollen and nectar that Spicebush’s flowers provide is very important for early solitary bees and flies. Once pollinated, in late summer and early fall the female flower develops into a bright red fruit called a drupe, a single-seeded fruit with a fleshy covering. These red drupes attract birds like the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) and are an important food for birds during their autumn migration. Birds spread these plants when they eat these fruits and excrete the fertilized seeds elsewhere.
The leaves of Spicebush are simple, smooth, and a medium-green color above and lighter green below. A great way to identify this shrub is to look for its alternate-leaved, olive-brown branches with whitish lenticels, or pores. Spicebush grows in rich soils, often near streams and wetlands. If you think you’ve found it, crush the leaves. If it is Spicebush, the leaves will release a sweet, citrusy aroma. This is a great activity for children, because the scent is so dramatic. Try it even in winter by scratching and sniffing the branches. During the Civil War, Spicebush tea was used as a substitute for coffee when rations ran short. Both dried leaves and twigs were steeped in hot water to make a tonic.
Spicebush is one of the few northern members of a mostly tropical plant family, the Lauraceae, or laurels. Members include well-known foods and spices, such as Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), cinnamon (Cinamomum spp.), and Avocado (Persea americana).
The only other member of this family in our area is Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). The leaves from this tree also have a spicy scent. Sassafras and Spicebush are the larval food plants for both the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and the giant Promethea Silkmoth (Callosamia promethea). To find a Spicebush Swallowtail larva (caterpillar), look for leaves that are rolled lengthwise. The caterpillar uses threads to create a tube-like space for itself. You might be surprised to see the large, snake-like false eyes on later stage, or instar, larvae. When threatened, the larva even puts out a foul-smelling osmeterium (an organ used for defense) that looks like a snake’s forked tongue! This insect has certainly evolved some amazing adaptations to keep from being eaten.
You can sometimes find the resting, or pupal, stage of Promethea Silkmoths, which look like dead leaves, hanging from Spicebush branches in the winter.
With its early spring flowers, attractive foliage and fruits, and important connections to wildlife, Spicebush makes for a great native shrub for your yard. Plant one and help early bees, butterflies, and silk moths.