Native Alternative: Spicebush

“…the air in utterable coolness

deeds of gren thrilling light
with thinned
newfragile yellows

lurch and.press
–in the woods
which
stutter
and
sing…” – e.e. cummings

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Image credit: R. A. Nonenmacher

I’ve gotta tell you about spicebush.

I know some people like the flashy yellow of forsythia – it’s one of those popular ornamentals that herald the arrival of warmer spring days. Yet, forsythia placed within an American ecosystem is a veritable desert. No pollinator visits its flower. Nothing eats the leaves. It bears no edible fruit. It just takes up space, and gives little back except for one blaring show of color in the early springtime.

If you want an early show of yellow flowers, check out spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Not only does it bear lovely yellow flowers, but these flowers are fragrant. The twigs are aromatic. You can use the twigs for a tea, and the berries as a spice.

There are 11 Lepidopteran  species that benefit from spicebush. One of these is the beautiful spicebush swallowtail.

Female Spicebush Swallowtail Megan McCarty07.jpg
Image credit: Megan McCarty

The caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail depends on the leaves of spicebush (though they will also eat sassafras and tulip tree leaves, spicebush leaves are preferred) for food. And it is super cool looking!

File:Papilio troilus larva.jpg
Image credit: Ryan Hagerty

The “eyes” of the caterpillar are not actually its eyes. This caterpillar avoids predation by mimicry – in this case, the green phase of the caterpillar looks a little like a snake. The yellow-brown phase kind of resembles bird poop. What a life, huh?

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The berries are beginning to form on this branch.

Spicebush isn’t as common in forests as it once was. It is a dioecious plant, which means plants are either male or female. In order for the female to berry, a male needs to be nearby, and a pollinator has to stop at the male, and then the female. With habitat fragmentation, pollinators of this plant may not easily find the males and the females.

By planting male and female spicebush plants near one another, we ensure the proliferation of an amazing Eastern shrub.

 

Spicebush can be used to flavor ice cream, teas, and rubs. Mammals and birds enjoy the berries, too. Native bees help pollinate it. Deer do not favor this little shrub, so you can plant it outside a deer fence.

You can find spicebush at native plant nurseries. If you’ve got a local commercial plant nursery that you like, request that they carry it. We won’t start finding more native plants at nurseries unless we start voicing our demands.