Spice bush, Lindera benzoin, is one of the two members of the Lauraceae family found on mesic sites throughout the Eastern Deciduous Forest. This multi-trunked shrub can be easily recognized in every season once you learn its individual characteristics. Know as “forsythia of the forest” because its waxy yellow flowers brighten the sleeping woods before any other woody shrubs have woken up. It is an important early insectory and nectory plant for the immerging insects buzzing about.
Lean in close and take a whiff… Ah, the light spicy flora essence is what attracts these critters and subtly spikes our interest in the changing season. It’s waxy deep green, simple leaves are also a recognizable characteristic creating a rounded or arched configuration and deepening the forest shade where it is found growing in dense clumps. Early explorers looking for rich farm land used this shrub as an indicator for rich moist soil and sadly removed the forest for farming and the bergeoning western expansion of a growing nation. We now see them an indicator for ginseng and goldenseal or other woodland medicinals that prefer A moist quality site. It’s bright red barrel shaped berries are easily recognized and a cheery contract in the autumn understory. These fruits provide food for many forest species and have been dried and used for centuries as a spicy cooking condiment. (Don’t forget to crumble, scratch, sniff and taste the leaves, berries and twigs to help you place this plant in your herbal memory!)
The aromatic twigs and leaves have long been used in blending delightful teas and medicinally as a strong tea or decoction for mild, colds, flu’s or fevers. It has a mild diaphoretic, stimulant and expectorant action (Howell 2006) and has been used for delayed menses and as a spring tonic. Foster and Duke (1990) also reference the use of the berries as a carminative and the oil from the crushed fruit as a rub for sore muscles, bruises and rheumatism.
One of my favorite tea blends, created by my students is 50/50 spice bush twigs and white pine needles. It’s so light and sweet it doesn’t even need honey. But experiment, it’s tasty with sumac berries, sassafras and raspberry leaves too! Spice bushes light and sweet taste makes it a good choice for children or those of us with delicate tastes and olfactory senses.
Another recent use of the dried berry is in scenting candles, soaps and sachets. I would gander it would add a “spicy twist” to any bay rum recipe. Regardless of how you use it, it is important as with all plant allies to have a positive Id, know when and how to harvest and prepare and use all ethical aspects of wildcrafting. It’s also important to share your personal experiences and discoveries…….happy exploring. If you want to Get the Green Spark and learn more about Spring treasures in the Appalachian forests join us May 13th at the Goldenseal Sanctuary follow the link Love Your Mother for information on the United Plant Savers Mothers’ Day Celebration for hikes, workshops and more, more, more.
Herbalist & Educator
Hopewood Holistic Health
14411 Rocky Pt. Road Athens Ohio
Sources: Peterson Field Guides, Easter/Central Plants, Steven Foster and James A. Duke 1990. Medicinal Plants of Southern Appalachians by Patricia Kyritsi Howell 2006 and many, many years in the woods.