Spicebush is a stout, smooth, aromatic shrub of damp woods, usually with several stems from the base. The smell of crushed foliage is distinctive.
Leaves do not droop; they are aromatic when crushed, simple, alternate, 2–6 inches long, 1–3 inches wide, broadest above the middle to oval, tip pointed, base narrowing to a sharp angle, margin entire (not toothed or lobed), thin; bright green above; whitish below. Twigs often holding 2 leaf sizes, with much smaller leaves occurring at the base of larger ones. The leaves stay green until mid to late autumn, when they turn greenish yellow.
Bark is light brown to gray, flaking into thin strips; pores prominent, corky, cream-colored. Spicy to the taste.
Twigs are slender, smooth, brittle, greenish brown to brown.
Flowers March–May, appearing before the leaves, yellow, fragrant, about ¼ inch wide, in clusters of 3–6 along the stem, with male and female flowers on separate plants; petals absent; stamens (on male flowers) 9.
Fruits September–October, solitary or in small clusters on short stalks, circular to broadest above the middle, about ⅜ inch long, glossy red, fleshy, spicy, 1-seeded. Seeds light brown, speckled with darker brown, hard.
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a common, aromatic small tree in the same family, but its leaves occur in characteristic mitten, oval, and three-lobed shapes, and its fruits are dark blue.
- Pondberry (L. melissifolia) is closely related to spicebush and is sometimes called “southern spicebush”; it is similar but only grows to about 6 feet tall; its leaves droop, and both sides are dark green; it is endangered in Missouri, and today’s wild populations occur only in Ripley County.
- Swamp privet (Forestiera acuminata) is in a different family, with opposite leaves, but it resembles spicebush when it blooms in early spring. The male flowers are in dense greenish-yellow clusters above yellow bracts (no true petals), thus resembling clusters of yellowish stamens. The leaves are toothed, with a pointed tip and the bases narrowly wedge shaped. Fruits mature in June and are purplish, sometimes curved, longer than wide, with a pointed tip, about 1 inch long.
Height: to 18 feet.
Scattered to common in approximately the southeastern half of the state. People may cultivate it statewide.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in low or moist woodlands and thickets along streams, in valleys, in ravine bottoms, along bases of bluffs, along spring branches, in seepy areas of wooded slopes, and along shaded roadsides. Also cultivated as a landscaping plant for its eye-catching, early-blooming flowers and bright red fruits.
With its bright, early flowers, attractive fruits, and aromatic leaves, spicebush is a good native plant for a shade garden. People also appreciate it for being an important larval food plant of spicebush swallowtails and promethea silkmoths, making it a popular shrub for a butterfly garden. Native garden enthusiasts refer to spicebush as "our native forsythia."
Historically, spicebush was made into medicinal tea for treating a variety of ailments, and some people still drink spicebush tea just to enjoy it.
To make spicebush tea, chop up some of the early flowers, twig tips, leaves, or bark. Add 1 teaspoon of this mixture to 1 cup of boiling water and steep for a few minutes, to taste. This dark grayish tea is spicy and tasty. Later in the season, the berries may be used for making tea or dried and powdered as a substitute for allspice.
An old trick hikers use, when they are feeling thirsty, is to chew on a twig of spicebush.
During the Revolutionary War, the fruit was used as a substitute for allspice.
On the first of April 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were preparing in the St. Louis area for their epic journey up the Missouri River. Clark noted in his journal that "spicewood [spicebush] is in full bloom, dogs tooth violet, and may apple appeared above ground."
Spicebush is an important larval host plant for two gorgeous insects, the promethea silkmoth and the spicebush swallowtail. Each swallowtail larva creates a shelter by folding over the leaf it is eating, securing it closed with silk. Except for very small plants, these caterpillars rarely cause serious damage.
At least 24 species of birds feed on spicebush fruit, including the wood thrush and veery. Rabbits and deer nibble the leaves.