Scientific name: Lindera benzoin
Common name: Common Spicebush
(Information for this Species Page was compiled in part by Sarah Allison for Biology 220W in Spring 2000 at Penn State New Kensington)
Spicebush is a common shrub of swamps and woodlands throughout North America.. Spicebush is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and is named for the aromatic, spicy scent that arises from its leaves, flowers, bark and fruit. It has been historically used for many purposes including teas, food flavorings, and medicines.
The common spicebush is found in eastern North America from Ontario to Florida and west to the Mississippi River. It is especially prominent as an understory component in many types of forest ecosystems including northern associations of eastern hemlock, American beech, northern red oak, sugar maple, and basswood, central associations of sycamore, shagbark hickory, white oak, buckeye, and southeastern associations of various pines, hickory, and oak. Spicebush's ideal habitat is a moist woodland with fertile, leaf -covered soil and with at least partial shade. It is found most abundantly in wooded bottomlands, low swamps, and also along streams.
Bark and Leaves
Mature spicebushes are six to ten feet tall with dark brown, bumpy bark. They are often found in dense clumps of individuals that have sprouted from a common rootstock. Leaves are elliptical and oblong, three to five inches in length, with smooth, non-serrated edges. The common spicebush has hairless leaves (in contrast to the "hairy spicebush" which is another North American species). The underside of the leaves is lighter in color than the upper surface, and they grow alternatively on their branches. In the fall the leaves turn yellow. The leaves both when fresh and when dried are richly aromatic when crushed.
The leaves, twigs, and bark of the spicebush are very palatable and are consumed by a variety of animals. White-tail deer, rabbits, opossums, and a variety of small rodents readily eat the aromatic leaves and woody parts of this plant.
The flowers of the spicebush appear early in the spring (March or early April) prior to the emergence of the leaves. Spicebush is "dioecious" which means that there are distinct male and female individuals. Female flowers
(image at left) are small and yellow with six colored sepals and no petals. Male flowers have nine, reddish stamens. The flowers are clustered in groups of four to six. Pollination is
by an array of small dipteran and hymenopteran species.
Fruit that grows on the female trees as a result of this pollination are fleshy, olive-shaped, bright-red berries that are about a half an inch in diameter. The berries appear in July and grow until September. They are eaten by a great diversity of song and game birds and small mammals.
Use by Humans
Human use of spicebush includes the brewing of teas from the crushed, dried leaves and the grinding of the dried berries into a meat seasoning spice. The teas are said to have a range of medicinal properties that include relief of fatigue, pain, arthritis, fever, cold symptoms, intestinal disorders and even breathing difficulties. Oils from the berries can be applied topically to treat bruises and rheumatic pain and as a general fist-aid ointment for cuts. Chemical analysis of spicebush has revealed thirty-nine different oils in its leaves, twigs and berries. Some of these oils
undoubtedly have potential medicinal uses and efficacies.