Spicebush is beneficial to people, wildlife

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a common understory plant found throughout Frederick County in moist, fertile lowland areas at the base of mountains, in coves or along streams, creeks or other riparian areas.

Spicebush is a member of the laurel family. There are three native species found in North America and nearly 100 representatives found throughout the world, mainly in Asia.

Courtesy Photo

Our native spicebush is a small, multi-stemed shrub that has dark green, oval leaves with smooth leaf margins. The leaves turn a deep yellow color in the fall just before they separate from the plant. Spicebush gets it name from the very aromatic smell the leaves and branches produce when they are crumpled or broken. The branches are brittle, and it's very easy to snap them off. This gives rise to one of the plant's common names, snap bush.

Spicebush has separate male and female plants, with only the females producing the red berries that develop in late summer. Spicebush can also spread from sprouts, so it can form dense colonies, especially in fertile moist sites. This characteristic leads some ecologists to view it as a native species with invasive qualities, because little else can grow under a dense mat of these plants.

Early pioneers viewed spicebush as a sign of fertile farmland when settling an area.

Many woodland animals that prefer dense, low cover, such as ovenbirds and catbirds, utilize spicebush for food and cover. The berries are a favorite of many of the thrushes, especially the hermit thrush, which is cited as a major spreader of the seeds.

Many species of swallowtail butterflies also feed on spicebush. The spicebush swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on spicebush leaves and the newly hatched larvae feed on them during their early developmental stages.

Spicebush has been used as a natural seasoning and an herbal tea since colonial times. The leaves contain a lot of vitamin C. A strong brew of spicebush twigs causes perspiration, and this concoction was used to treat fever, colds and intestinal parasites. Because of this, the shrub is also called fever bush.

Spicebush is also used as an ingredient for some perfumes and meat tenderizers.

Nature Notes for 5/27/2012