Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

  • By Cathy Caldwell
  • /
  • March 2019-Vol.5 No.3
  • /
  • 3 Comments

Spicebush in the wild. Photo: Wanda SanJule, Hummingbird Hill Native Plant Nursery

If you’re out on a forest trail this month, keep an eye out for the clouds of yellow created by Lindera benzoin — our native spicebush — a deciduous shrub whose greenish-yellow blooms appear in March in Virginia.  Lindera benzoin is remarkable not only for its spring and fall color, but also for its adaptability. It is not fussy about either soil moisture levels nor about pH nor about light. In nature, it is most often found along streams, in floodplains and ravines, but also in dryer upland forests, and is widely distributed throughout eastern North America and in Virginia.  Indeed, the Virginia Native Plant Society named Lindera benzoin the native plant of the year in 2006.   I highly recommend the essay that accompanied that award, VNPS Wildflower of the Year: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Ecologists refer to spicebush as a facultative wetland plant, which means it usually occurs in wetlands (estimated probability 67% – 99%), but occasionally found in non-wetlands.  It is more abundant in soils that are slightly alkaline.  You will rarely see this native shrub in home gardens, but it deserves consideration.  It is fairly easy to grow, tolerates both acid and alkaline soil, and can tolerate a wide range of moisture conditions, including

  • occasionally saturated or very wet soil;
  • consistently moist, well-drained soil;
  • occasional periods of dry soil

woodyplants.cals.cornell.edu/plant/325

 

Spicebush at Chadwick Arboretum & Learning Gardens, Ohio State University, Photo: Dan Keck

Spicebush is a rounded shrub of 4′ to 12‘ high and equal spread.  Its simple, eliptical green leaves emerge much later than its spring blooms, and become a showy golden yellow in autumn.  If you’re wondering whether you’ve come upon a spicebush, crush some leaves or twigs, which produce a pleasant, spicy fragrance.  The essential oil contained in the leaves, twigs, bark, and berries was traditionally used in folk medicine and as a substitute for allspice.  The flowers on the female plant eventually turn into green drupes that mature into bright red berries in fall.  Because this plant is dioecious, both male and female plants must be close enought to permit cross pollination to produce the berries.   The attractive berries are hidden beneath the leaves, but are more visible after the leaves drop.  Happily, disease and insects are not usually a problem. Some authorities consider it deer-resistant while others say it is sometimes browsed by deer.

Attracts birds and butterflies

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly.                     Photo: Dr. Thomas Barnes, US Fish&Wildlife Service

If you are looking for plants that attract birds and butterflies, you may want to try spicebush.  The fruits of spicebush attract many birds (vireos, tanagers, robins, thrushes) and its flowers attract native bees and pollinators. Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.HORT-59-NP.

Spicebush butterfly larva on a spicebush leaf. Photo: Ryan Hagerty, US.Fish & Wildlife Service

 

Lindera is a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. whose larvae feed on it and other members of the Lauracaea family, which includes another local native, sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).  You’ll find lots of information about the spicebush swallowtail at Univ.Fla.Entemology/spicebushswallowtail.

 

 

Sources for Spicebush plants and its cultivars

Spicebush flowers — a lovely greenish-yellow. Photo: Wanda DeJule, Hummingbird Hill Natives Plants Nursery.

If you’re ready to try planting spicebush, you CAN find it for sale in this area.

It’s worth noting that there are a few cultivars of Lindera benzoin

‘Green Gold’ – A non-fruiting form with very large, ornamental yellow blooms.

‘Rubra’ (also known as f. rubra) – a non-fruiting form with red-brown blooms.

‘Xanthocarpa’ (also known as f. xanthocarpa) – discovered at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, this unique form has orange-yellow fruit.

The cultivars are not widely available, but the species is available in local native plant nurseries and online sources.  For a complete list of native plant nurseries in our region, see the list maintained by the Virginia Native Plant Society, VaNativePlantSociety/NurseriesList.

 

Spicebush foliage in fall color. Photo: Dogtooth 77.

 

How to Grow

Because it’s so adaptable, you can plant spicebush in either alkaline or acid soil, or in full sun to shade, or in sites that are anywhere from occasionally wet to occasionally dry.  The ideal situation, however, would be a site in partial shade with loamy, well-drained soil that is only occasionally wet or dry, and is in the pH range of 5.0 to 8.0.

According to some authorities, spicebush does not transplant easily, but a gardening friend of mine has had success with transplanting the wild ones on her property into moist areas.  In any event, the container-grown plants from nurseries should establish readily.  It can also be grown from seed, and quite easily.

How to use Lindera benzoin in the landscape

Spicebush is ideal for naturalistic plantings, shrub borders, woodland gardens, and for mass plantings along streams and ponds.  Partial shade is best, but for maximum fall color and berries, and for the nicest shape, be sure your site gets some sun.  Remember that if you want berries, be sure to have both male and female plants.

If you’re creating a rain garden,  Lindera benzoin would be an obvious choice if you want to include a shrub.   Va.Coop.Ext/ Rain Garden Plants.  It can also be helpful in erosion control and riparian buffer zones. www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage//riparian-nat-plants.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spicebush berries at Old Forest State Natural Area, Overton Park, Memphis, TN. Photo: Melissa McMasters

SOURCES:

VA.TECH/Dendrology.factsheet/Lindera benzoin

Va.NativePlantSociety/vnps.org/wildflowers-of-the-year/2006-spicebush-lindera-benzoin

vaplantatlas.org/

“For the Birds, Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats,”  Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.HORT-59-NP

NCStateExt./Lindera-benzoin

hort.uconn.edu/PlantDatabase/Lindera benzoin

www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/Lindera benzoin

Va.Native Plant Society list of native plant nurseries, vnps.org/VirginiaNativePlantNurseries

3 Comments

  1. Janette Martin

    Thanks for this information! Last spring, I planted about 6 one gallon container size spice bushes. I found the Swallowtail larva on one. But either deer or rabbits have eaten the tops off all of them and now they look like sticks that are a few inches long. I had to replace several that were killed. I put hardware cloth cages around all of them, but I’m not sure they’ll survive. Any advice for protecting them while they’re small, and do deer eat the mature bushes?
    Thank you!

    1. Cathy Caldwell

      I’m so sorry about the deer damage to your spicebushes. Also that it’s taken me a while to research your question and respond. Many reliable authorities indicate that Linder benzoin as NOT a favorite of deer. It’s categorized as “seldom severely damaged” by Rutgers/Deer-Resistant Plants. But with the high level of deer presssure we’re experiencing, it should be no surprise that deer are eating just about anything. On this general subject, you may be interested in a three-year study of native plants that is currently underway in New York City — yes, NYC, whose parks have a lot of deer pressure. See Species Least Preferred by Deer, nycgovparks.org.
      I found a fascinating recent study of deer-browsing of spicebush that revealed some surprising facts, like this one: “Over 70% of spicebush plants at our study site had at least 50% of their twigs browsed early in the growing season, suggesting intense browsing on a plant that is generally ignored by deer.” “Indirect Effects of deer browsing on generalist and specialist insect herbivores of spicebush (LIndera benzoin L.), ResearchGate/conference paper/. But there’s more: “Spicebush plants responded by release of apical dominance, producing new growth that was higher in water content, less tough, and with altered nutrient and defensive chemistry. Deer browsing had generally ceased upon arrival of the first cohort of swallowtail caterpillars, and many spicebush plants had both “new” (post-browse) and “old” (pre-browse) leaves available to insect consumers. ” Thus, it appears that many spicebush plants survive the early deer-browsing, which I hope is the case for your plants. The study also found that the spicebush plants which had been browsed responded with defensive chemical changes that made them less appealing to insects EXCEPT the swallowtail caterpillar. So deer-browsing actually benefitted the caterpillar for whom spicebush is a host plant! Not much of a comfort to you, but quite interesting. Please reply with an update on the status of your spicebush plants. Have they survived?
      Thanks, Cathy Caldwell

  2. Amy Thoren

    I planted two spicebush shrubs at my home in Champaign, IL 1.5 years ago — in fall. I think they were in 4 or 5 gallon containers. Last summer, both were healthy, budded at the same time, and both had spicebush swallowtail larvae. I like raising butterflies so I took in the spicebush caterpillars and snipped a number of the leaves of one of the shrubs to feed to the caterpillars. This spring, that particular shrub, though in almost identical conditions as the other one (they’re about 30 ft apart), is barely budding at all, while the other one is budding quite a lot, as they both did last year. Is it possible that I snipped too many leaves off the one last summer? There are buds, but not nearly as many as on the other shrub. I fear I’ve killed my spicebush! I read that if pruning is necessary, it should be done immediately after blooming, but I snipped the leaves at more like the height of the summer. I didn’t take that many. I just can’t imagine I would have hurt the shrub in any significant way. Ideas? Thanks!

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