Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
“For the Birds, Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats,” Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.HORT-59-NP
Va.Native Plant Society list of native plant nurseries, vnps.org/VirginiaNativePlantNurseries