The spicebush is a fragrant native shrub or small tree that provides multi-season interest. These deciduous plants put on a great fall show, have fragrant flowers, attract beautiful pollinators, and have many uses in the kitchen.
Read on to learn more about how to grow and care for these useful native plants.
What Is A Spicebush?
These plants of the Lauraceae family are also known as the northern spicebush, benjaminbush, or wild allspice. The name of this plant comes from the aromatic nature of the leaves and fruits, and the practice of drying and powdering the fruits to make a spice.
Spicebush is a deciduous shrub or small tree with a broadly rounded shape, which grows from one or many stems. In the garden, these plants usually reach a maximum size of about 12 feet (3.6 m) tall and wide, although they can grow taller in their natural environment. These plants are native to the eastern United States, where they grow as an understory plant in moist woodlands. (1)
The spicebush has smooth gray bark and leaves that are glossy green and alternately arranged, reaching about 6 inches (15 cm) in length and a little over 2 inches (5 cm) across with smooth margins.
These leaves, which are elliptical and pointed on either end, color up quite early in the fall, when many other deciduous plants are still green. The lovely golden yellow shade these leaves take in the fall makes for a showy display.
The aromatic and fragrant flowers of the spicebush are very small and occur in clusters in the early spring. These flowers, which are a pale greenish shade of yellow, appear before the plants leaf out (2).
After flowering, small red berries are produced that ripen in the late summer to fall. These berries are produced on female plants only and are also aromatic. Because spicebush plants are dioecious, there must be at least one male plant nearby to fertilize the female and produce fruits.
How To Grow A Spicebush Plant
Spicebush can be successfully grown from softwood cuttings or from seeds. If you plan to collect and process your own seeds, you’ll need to collect them from ripe fruits only, otherwise, they will not be viable.
Start by removing seeds from ripe fruits and clean off the pulp. Once obtained, you can plant the seeds after a 1-month period of warm stratification, followed by 3 months of cold moist stratification. (1)
Spicebush plants do not have special watering needs, but they do enjoy moist growing conditions and are most often found growing in wetland environments. As a general rule, remember to keep your plants well-watered after planting and until they are established.
These plants can tolerate wet and clay soils, but prefer sandy, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 6. Although they can grow well in shade, they will take on a more open and leggy growth form in such positions. A sunny spot will promote a denser plant that flowers and fruits better.
Care and Maintenance
Spicebush plants are very low maintenance and are easy to grow and care for, provided you plant them in USDA zones 4 to 9, where they are best suited to grow. These plants are fast-growing, but probably best left to naturalize and don’t have any special pruning needs.
Being a plant that prefers rich soil, the spicebush may benefit from some fertilizer if you grow them in nutrient-deficient soil.
These plants are generally disease resistant, but unfortunately can be affected by the laurel wilt disease which was introduced from Asia in the early 2000s. (3) Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for this disease at this stage, and affected plants should be destroyed.
One of the joys of growing the spicebush is enjoying the beautiful swallowtail butterflies that visit them. Although these plants do cause minor damage to the foliage of the plants, they are not considered a major pest.
Spicebush is a great plant for marshy areas where other choices are limited. These plants are very useful in the environment and are ideal for rain gardens, wildlife gardens, butterfly gardens.
The ground-up fruits of this plant have been used as an allspice alternative for meat. There are also a variety of traditional medicinal uses reported. Teas made from leaves and berries are used to treat a range of ailments and conditions including pain, fever, and fatigue among others. (2)
These deer-resistant plants are very popular with other wildlife. The fruits are eaten by birds, while the foliage is used by the larva of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, and the promethea silkmoth, all of which are beautiful creatures.
The spicebush is a wonderful and useful native plant option for naturalistic gardens. The low-maintenance needs of this plant make it an ideal choice for wet areas in zones 4-9 where other plants are not easily grown.
For more shrubs to grow, check these types of bushes.
(1) Vankus, V., Brinkman, K. A. & Phipps, H. M. The Woody Plant Seed Manual
(2) Allison, S. Species Pages: Lindera Benzoin. Retrieved at https://www.dept.psu.edu/nkbiology/naturetrail/speciespages/spicebush.htm
(3) Fraedrich, S. W. Spicebush Is Also Affected By Laurel Wilt Disease. Retrieved at https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/research/2017-research-highlights/spicebush