Mystery berries lead to a case of mistaken identity

It's September, and there are berries everywhere in the woods.

Walking along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath last week, the lack of flowers in the understory wasn’t notable. It is, after all, fall, and most of the sylvan color this month and next comes from the trees changing color.

But here were all these little red berries, adding such a festive feel to the forest.

My husband, shaking trees for annoyingly out-of-reach pawpaws (Asimina triloba), asked me what I thought the fruits were. About the size of a caper and mostly hanging at eye height, you couldn’t miss their vibrant, cardinal-red color.

I hadn’t inspected them terribly closely since I was mainly occupied with keeping my toddler daughter from plunging off the side of the towpath, but I responded that I thought they were bush honeysuckle fruits (Lonicera maackii).

Like its fragrant-flowered vining cousin, this honeysuckle is another exotic non-native that runs rampant in damp forest edges, and whomps the locals in a growing contest. It’s tough to eradicate, and birds contribute to its spread by gobbling up the bush’s lustrous red berries and spreading seed around.

I had resigned myself to thinking our walk was just another showcase of invasive exotics, but stopped to take a picture anyway. The berries were just too pretty.

Then I noticed — these weren’t perfectly round berries sitting in pairs right at the base of opposing leaves. The fruits were oval, hanging from the twig on slender individual stems in small groups. Nor were they translucent like honeysuckle fruits; these were opaque, and a screaming fire-engine red.

Curious, I crushed a leaf between my fingers.

The aroma confirmed my suspicions: zesty, lemony, and tannic, like the smell of fallen leaves. This was spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a very worthy member of the forest landscape. A good naturalist would have clucked at me for my ignorance.

Twigs, leaves and stems all smell spicy when bruised, but the fruits are most pungent — they can be crushed whole and used like allspice. Native Americans used them to treat coughs and measles, and prepared poultices from the berries to soothe arthritis. Pioneers brewed potions from the sweat-inducing “fever bush” to treat typhoid, general fever and intestinal worms.

In the home landscape, you may not be happy to see raccoons and opossums visiting to eat the berries (they apparently enjoy them), but you’ll probably like seeing robins, bobwhites, catbirds, eastern kingbirds and great crested flycatchers come in for a snack. The shrub’s leaves are also a main larval food source of the black and- blue spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus).

In more sun, spicebush assumes a denser habit, though in its native forest habitat it tends to be more sprawling and leggy. The butter-yellow foliage in fall gives it away if you miss the berries, and if you’re still not sure, just rub a leaf between your fingers and take a whiff.

My kids enjoyed the day’s scratch-and-sniff, and when my husband returned from looking for pawpaws, he raised his eyebrows at the aroma of this little fall surprise. “Wow,” he said. “I think a lot of people would like that if they had the chance to smell it.”

And yes, he did find sticky-sweet pawpaws for us to eat.

Spicebush berries.

Bush honeysuckle fruit looks good, but isn’t very nutritious for wildlife.

Article and photos by Michelle Donahue, FCFCDB member

Nature Note for 9/28/14