General: Laurel Family (Lauraceae). Native shrubs, growing mostly 1-3(-5) meters tall, sometimes a small tree; reproducing asexually by root sprouting (most spicebush patches and thickets are probably clonal). Leaves are thin, deciduous, glabrous or sparsely pubescent on the lower surface, obovate to oblong or elliptic, 6-14 cm long, pointed at both ends, entire, on petioles 5-12 mm long, usually largest at the branch tips, decreasing in size down the branch. Flowers appearing before the leaves, in clusters on nodes of last year’s growth, either staminate (pollen-producing), with 9 fertile stamens, or pistillate (with a fertile ovary and 12-18 rudimentary, infertile stamens), both types with 6 short, yellowish sepals, the female and male on different plants (the species dioecious). Fruit is a short-stalked, ellipsoid, shiny-red berry 6-10 mm long, with a single seed. The common name refers to the sweet, spicy fragrance of the stems, leaves, and fruits when bruised.
Variation within the species: Lindera benzoin var. pubescens (Palmer & Steyermark) Rehd. is the more southern form of the species, absent from the northernmost states of the species range, with twigs and lower leaf surfaces hairy (vs. glabrous in var. benzoin). Var. benzoin does not occur in the states directly bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Two closely related species (the only other species of the genus in North America) occur in the southeastern US, where they are rare throughout their range –– Lindera melissifolia (Walt.) Blume, pondberry or southern spicebush, and Lindera subcoriacea B.E. Wofford, bog spicebush. Allozyme studies of populations of spicebush and pondberry show that both species have low levels of genetic diversity.
Northern spicebush, Benjaminbush
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Spicebush occurs over all of the eastern US, from east Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas eastward to the Atlantic states as far north as Maine (and Ontario), not reported from Wisconsin. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Adaptation: Spicebush is primarily an understory species, sometimes forming thickets, of rich, mesic sites on acidic to basic soils. Common habitats are low woods, swamp margins, and streamsides. Flowering: March-April; fruits maturing August-October (-November).
General: Seeds are dispersed as animals and birds eat the fruits. Seeds germinate in the litter layer in the spring or they may remain viable in the seed bank for many years. Much of the reproduction is clonal through root sprouting.
Flower-Visiting Insects of Spicebush in Illinois
(information is limited to Andrenid bees; insect activity is unspecified; observations are from Krombein et al.)
Andrenidae (Andreninae): Andrena imitatrix imitatrix, Andrena nuda
Stephanitis takeyai sucks sap of Lindera benzoin
Life History and Behavior
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Lindera benzoin
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Lindera benzoin
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 10
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNR - Unranked
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status, such as, state noxious status and wetland indicator values.
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
These plant materials are readily available from commercial sources. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”
Spicebush successfully grows and reproduces in a wide range of light conditions. Although it does grow and reproduce under completely closed canopy, openings in the canopy increase growth rate. It is considered difficult to transplant but has few serious disease problems.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Over 20 species of birds, as well as deer, rabbits, raccoons, and opossums have been recorded as browsing the leaves or eating the fruits. The fruits are a special favorite of wood thrushes. The spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus (L.), lays its eggs on spicebush and other plants in the Laurel Family – sassafras, redbay, and camphortree.
There apparently are no commercial uses of spicebush, but the essential oils of leaves, twigs, and fruits have lent themselves for minor use for tea, and dried fruits have been used in fragrant sachets. Native Americans used dried fruits as a spice and the leaves for tea. Extracts have been used for drugs, including anti-arthritic, diaphoretic, emetic and herbal steam. The benzoin of drug trade is produced by species of Styrax (Styraceae).
Because of its habitat in rich woods, early land surveyors and settlers used spicebush as an indicator species for good agricultural land.
Spicebush plants make nicely shaped shrubs with deep green leaves and, if in at least partial sun, the leaves turn bright yellow in the fall. It is a good choice for plantings in shady locations but can also grow in full sun. Moist soil is best.
Lindera benzoin (wild allspice, spicebush, common spicebush, northern spicebush or Benjamin bush) is a flowering plant in the family Lauraceae, native to eastern North America, ranging from New York to Ontario in the north, and to Kansas, Texas, and northern Florida in the center and south.
Spicebush is a medium-sized deciduous shrub growing to 5 m tall, typically found only in the understory of moist thickets. The leaves are alternate, simple, 6–15 cm long and 2–6 cm broad, oval or obovate and broadest beyond the middle of the leaf. They are very aromatic when crushed, hence the common names and the specific epithet benzoin. The flowers grow in showy yellow clusters that appear in early spring, before the leaves begin to grow. The fruit is a berrylike red drupe, rich in lipid, about 1 cm long and is highly prized by birds. It has a "turpentine-like" taste and aromatic scent, and contains a large seed. Spicebush is dioecious (plants are either male or female), so that both sexes are needed in the garden if one wants berries with viable seed. The leaves, buds, and new growth twigs can also be made into a tea.
Spicebush is a favorite food plant of two lepidopterous insects: the spicebush swallowtail Papilio troilus, and the promethea silkmoth, Callosamia promethea. The larvae of the spicebush swallowtail are easily found inside leaves that have been folded over by the application of silk; small larvae are brown, resembling bird droppings, and mature larvae are green, with eyespots resembling the head of a snake. Since several broods (generations) of spicebush swallowtails typically occur each year, spicebush is a useful plant for the butterfly garden, since the egg-laying females are strongly attracted to it. Promethea moth cocoons, if present, can be found in the winter, resembling dead leaves still hanging from the twigs. Neither of these insects is ever present in sufficient quantities to defoliate a spicebush of medium to large size, although very small specimens may suffer even from a single caterpillar.
Related or potentially confused species
- USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN - Online Database). National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland. (24 July 2013)
- Flora of North America: Lindera benzoin
- Peterson, Lee Allen (1977). Edible Wild Plants. Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 208.
- Lindera benzoin at USDA PLANTS
Among the Cherokee, Creek, Iroquois, and Rappahannock tribes, Lindera benzoin was used for various medicinal purposes (D. E. Moerman 1986).
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