Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a very 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 of this plant found in North America, and nearly 100 representatives found throughout the globe, mainly in Asia. Our native spicebush is a small, multi-stemmed understory shrub that has dark green oval leaves with smooth leaf margins. The leaves turn deep yellow in the fall just before they separate from the plant.

Spicebush gets it name from the very aromatic smell that the leaves and branches produce when they are crumpled or broken. Spicebush branches are very brittle, and it’s very easy to snap them off, giving rise to one of the common names— “snap bush” that are given to this plant.

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

Many woodland animals utilize spicebush for food and cover, especially those species that prefer dense, low cover like ovenbirds and catbirds. Spicebush berries are a favorite of many of the thrushes, especially the hermit thrush, which is cited as a major distributor of the seeds. Many species of swallowtail butterflies also feed on spicebush, especially the spicebush swallowtail butterfly that lays it eggs on spicebush leaves; the newly hatched larvae feed on these leaves during their early developmental stages. Spicebush has been used as a natural seasoning and an herbal tea ever since the colonial times. The leaves contain a lot of vitamin C; a strong brew made up of spicebush twigs causes perspiration, and so this concoction was used to cure fever, colds, and intestinal parasites. This gives rise to another name given to spicebush— “fever bush”. Spicebush is also used as an ingredient for some perfumes and meat tenderizers. Early pioneers viewed spicebush as a sign of fertile farmland when settling an area.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature note for 12/26/20