Put a Little Spice in Your Life

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.

To identify a male or female plant, look closely at the flowers. In this inflorescence you can see the circle of stamens on each male flower. Photo by
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Notice the “bowling pin” shaped pistils with white stigmas on these female flowers. Photo by Mary Anne Borge www.the-natural-web.org.

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.

With its tropical-looking foliage and bright red fruits, Spicebush makes an attractive shrub for your yard. These fruits are favorites of Wood Thrushes, Veeries and Hermit Thrushes. Photo by Cody Hough, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

To find Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly larvae, look for rolled leaves. These caterpillars spin silk to attach one side of the leaf to another. Photo by Andrew Brand.
The last growth stage or fifth-instar Spicebush Swallowtail larva has evolved large, false eyes that make it look like a snake to predators such as birds. The true eyes are near the mouth. Photo by Judy Gallagher, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

You can sometimes find the resting, or pupal, stage of Promethea Silkmoths, which look like dead leaves, hanging from Spicebush branches in the winter.

Promethea Moths are a large silk moth whose larvae also feed on spicebush leaves. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.
In winter, look for curled, dead leaves hanging from Spicebush branches. You might have found a Promethea Moth cocoon. Photo by Meganmccarty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

7 thoughts on “Put a Little Spice in Your Life

  1. Fortunately (I think anyway) I have wetlands on my property and enjoy this shrub! Thanks for the great info once again


  2. Hi Jim,
    Thanks again for another informative article! We planted 2 spicebush shrubs in our yard two years ago, a male and a female. Last year there were a few Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars on the shrubs, hidden within their rolled-up leaves. Unfortunately, the wrens found them and bit through each of the leaves! We assume that once the shrubs are larger, more leaves will help ensure the survival of some of the caterpillars. It’s also exciting to find out in your article that the Promethea moth’s larvae will feed on Spicebush leaves, so we will keep an eye out for those and potential cocoons this fall!


  3. I took my 9-year-old son for a nature walk yesterday along a short trail in Edqewood Park near a marsh. I pointed out numerous spicebush shrubs along the path and showed him how rubbing the leaves releases that citrusy, spicy scent. He asked if spicebush has any medicinal qualities and I recommended this very blog entry as a starting point for some research. He was excited to discover that spicebush can be used for tea, so he and his siblings went out and gathered more leaves. We made a pot of spicebush tea [with a lot of honey] which everyone agreed had a great aroma and flavor!


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