spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Lindera benzoin (L.) Blume
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of spicebush is
Lindera benzoin (L.) Blume. There is 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. The Atlas of Virginia Flora lists
Lindera benzoin with variety.
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.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: This native woody
shrub (sometimes as small tree) is about 5-15' tall and much branched.
The central trunk (if present) and larger branches are rather slender;
their bark is brown, shiny, and sparsely covered with small white lenticels.
These lenticels are circular-angular in shape. The slender branchlets are
shiny and brown; their lenticels are white, dot-like, and insignificant.
Alternate leaves are produced along new branchlets. Leaves horizontal
to ascending, strongly aromatic (spicy) throughout growing season. The
larger leaves are up to 5" long and 2½" across. They are deciduous, thin,
ovate or ovate-obovate, smooth along their margins, wedge-shaped at
their bottoms, and hairless or sparsely pubescent on the lower surface.
The slender pedicels of the larger leaves are up to ½" long. The smaller
leaves are less than 2" long, more rounded and oval in shape, and less
conspicuous than the larger leaves; otherwise, they have similar character-
istics. Both types of leaves are medium green on the upper surface, and
pale green on the lower surface. The yellow flowers are perfect or dioecious
(male & female flowers on separate shrubs); they occur in small clusters
along the branchlets before the leaves develop in clusters on nodes of last
year’s growth. Individual flowers are less than ¼" across; each flower has
6 yellow sepals with a petal-like appearance and no petals. The male
flowers have 9 stamens (organized into 3 groups), while the female flowers
have an ovary with a single style and up to 18 rudimentary, infertile sta-
mens. Both types have 6 short, yellowish sepals. The flowers are fragrant;
the crushed leaves and branchlets have a spicy aroma.Each fertile flower is
replaced by a fleshy, short-stalked, ellipsoid/ovoid drupe with a single
stone; this drupe becomes red when it is mature during the late summer
or fall.The woody roots are shallow and much branched. This shrub repro-
duces by reseeding itself.
REGENERATION PROCESS: Spicebush propogates itself by reseeding
and vegetative reproduction. 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.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Spicebush prefers Sun to partial shade,
moist to dry soil, preferably with an alkaline pH.
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: Spicebush is primarily an understory
species, sometimes forming thickets, of rich, mesic sites on acidic to
basic soils. It can be found in all successional stages, including more
mature forest settings.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The blooming period occurs during the
mid-spring and lasts about 2 weeks.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Spicebush is primarily an eastern and
midwestern species, ranging from Florida north to Maine, and extending
west to Texas and north through Oklahoma and Kansas. It has been
reported occurring in Ontario, Canada.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Shrub specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES: Habitats include
rich deciduous woodlands, wooded bluffs, bottomland forests along rivers,
wooded slopes (usually toward the bottom), and gravelly seeps in shaded
areas. Stream banks, low woods, margins of wetlands; uplands, especially
with exposed limestone.
While spicebush is fairly shade-tolerant, it benefits from occasional disturb-
ance that reduces the dense shade of some canopy trees, particularly sugar
maple, American beech, and similar trees.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: Spicebush is an excellent source of nectar
for butterflies and other pollinators in early spring. It is the host plant for
spicebush and tiger swallowtail butterflies; the caterpillars of the large
black spicebush swallowtail are found only on spicebush and sassafras.
Birds feed on the brilliant red fruits available in late summer on female
plants. These berries are one of the best sources of energy for long distance
migratory birds. Provides cover, nesting sites and red berries for various
The flowers are cross-pollinated by various insects, particularly small bees
and various flies. Insects that eat the foliage of spicebush include the cater-
pillars of Papilio troilus (spicebush swallowtail), Callosamia promethea
(promethea moth), and Epimecis hortaria (tulip tree beauty). The grubs
of the long-horned beetle, Oberea ruficollis (sassafras borer), bore into the
branches and roots of this shrub. The fruits are eaten occasionally by some
upland gamebirds and several woodland songbirds. These birds help to
distribute the seeds to new locations.
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. During the Civil War, Confed-
erate soldiers drank spicebush tea, which has a taste similar to a spicy,
aromatic black tea. Extracts have been used for drugs, including anti-
arthritic, diaphoretic, emetic and herbal steam. Mohegan children chewed
the twigs to rid themselves of worms. The benzoin of drug trade is produced
by species of Styrax (Styraceae). A 2008 study indicated that spicebush
bark extract strongly inhibits growth of both Candida albicans yeast (a
causal agent of opportunistic oral and genital infections in humans) and
the parasitic fungus in the genus Trichophyton that causes athlete's foot.
Because of its habitat in rich woods, early land surveyors and settlers used
spicebush as an indicator species for good agricultural land.
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