Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Northern Spicebush, Spicebush, Spice Bush

Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a plant species native to North America. This plant grows from Maine to Florida in the United States. The presence of northern spicebush has traditionally been an indicator of good agricultural land. It is consumed by a variety of animals in the wild, including over 20 different types of birds.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Lindera benzoin (commonly called spicebush, common spicebush, northern spicebush, wild allspice, or Benjamin bush) is a shrub in the laurel family. It is native to eastern North America, ranging from Maine and New York to Ontario in the north, and to Kansas, Texas, and northern Florida in the center and south. Within its native range it is a relatively common plant where it grows in the understory in moist, rich woods, especially those with exposed limestone.

Spicebush is a deciduous shrub growing to 6–12 feet (1.8–3.7 m) tall. It has a colonial nature and often reproduces by root sprouting, forming clumps or thickets. The leaves are alternately arranged on the stem, simple, 6–15 cm (2–6 in) long and 2–6 cm (1–2 in) broad, oval or broadest beyond the middle of the leaf. They have a smooth edge with no teeth and are dark green above and paler below. The leaves, along with the stems are very aromatic when crushed with a spicy, citrusy smell, hence the common names and the specific epithet benzoin. In the fall the leaves turn a very bright and showy yellow color.

The yellow flowers grow in showy clusters which appear in early spring, before the leaves begin to grow. The flowers have 6 sepals and a very sweet odor. The ripe fruit is a red, ellipsoidal, berrylike drupe, rich in lipids, about 1 cm (1⁄2 in) long and is eaten by several bird species. 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 a garden if one wants drupes with viable seeds.

Like other dioecious plants, the female plants have a greater cost of reproduction compared to the male plants. In the wild, the population tends to have more males than females possibly due to the heavier reproductive costs on females.

The stem of L. benzoin has a slightly rough, but flat, bark which is covered in small, circular lenticels which give it a rough texture.

Spicebush is often cultivated in gardens or edges of gardens. The brightly colored fruits and early flowers along with the spherical growth form make the plant desirable in gardens. It is hardy in USDA zones 4-9 and tolerates shade excellently but will also grow in full sun. When grown in sun the plant tends to grow denser and have more berries and flowers compared to growing in shade or partial shade. It is best to grow the plant from seed as its extensive rootsystem does not handle transplanting well.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Spicebush grows best in full sun to partial shade conditions. While it can technically survive in full shade, the growth habit will become more “leggy” or scraggly looking. The stems grow longer because the plant is trying to stretch its leaves toward the light.

Temperature and Humidity

Spicebush is native to the Americas and is hardy in USDA zones 4-9. It is accustomed to cold winters, warm springs, and mild to hot summers; however, thanks to its adaptable nature, it can tolerate various conditions. It grows rapidly in wet conditions and accepts humid conditions more readily than overly dry conditions.

Watering

During the first growing season, spicebush should be watered regularly to help it establish a strong root system. Once established, spicebush usually does not require extra watering outside the regular rainfall in its growing zones. It is widely considered an adaptable shrub and can tolerate a wide range of moisture conditions, including short periods of dry or very wet soil.

Soil

Spicebush naturally grows in wetlands, thriving in moist, well-draining soils. It tolerates both alkaline and acidic soils well.

Fertilizing

Spicebush should be fertilized twice during each growing season. Fertilize in the early spring and then again in midsummer. Use a fertilizer specifically formulated for deciduous shrubs for the best results.

Pruning

Spicebush does not require heavy pruning, and pruning is usually only for aesthetic reasons and to help it maintain its shape. The best time to prune spicebush is after the shrub has finished flowering in the spring.

Propagation

Although it can be grown from seed relatively easily, spicebush is not as easily propagated otherwise. It can be successfully grown from softwood cuttings, although successful propagation can be challenging. Choose a piece of healthy stem 2 to 6 inches long with at least two leaves on end.

Softwood is the growth stage of a deciduous woody plant that is part of the stem between the new, green growth at the end of a shoot and the stiff, woody growth near the base of the stem. The softwood lies between the two. Cut midway between both, on an angle. The best time to take softwood cuttings for spicewood propagation is summer or fall (July through September). Here are the steps for propagating via cutting:

  • You’ll need sterilized pruning snips, a potting mix, a clean pot, and rooting hormone.
  • Dip the cut end of the stem in the rooting hormone.
  • Plant the cutting in a moistened mixture of perlite and soilless mix. Keep the plant moist throughout the rooting process.
  • Softwood cuttings need high humidity to sprout roots, so keep the newly potted softwood cutting in a plastic bag to create a humid environment until roots develop. Use a pencil, dowel, or chopstick to prop the bag up without touching the leaves at the end. Open the bag daily, offering an hour of fresh air.
  • It can take about six weeks for the stem cutting to produce roots. Transplant once you notice new growth emerging from the stem.

How to Grow from Seed

Fresh seeds are best when it comes to growing spicebush from seed. Fortunately, the berries that adorn the female plants contain their seeds, so if you have a female spicebush, it is easy to source seeds for growing new plants.

Harvest the berries in the late summer or fall once they have turned red and remove the seed from the inside. Sow the seeds immediately after harvesting them in a pot or the garden bed. Germination will occur in the spring of the following year.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Spicebush is usually resistant to pests and plant diseases. However, since 2002, with the introduction of the invasive redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus Eichhoff) from Asia, spicebush has become susceptible to laurel wilt. It is a fungal disease caused by Raffaelea lauricola, affecting many laurel plants.2

When infected, the plant’s leaves wilt suddenly, and the sapwood appears blackened, killing the plant. Upon its discovery, pull it up and discard it to reduce its spread to other plants.

Common Problems 

This shrub grows naturally in the U.S. Its secure place in the ecosystem keeps it in check, not growing invasively. It resists pests and diseases and is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies that help pollinate this plant. Its most significant threats are non-native diseases and pests.

Leaf Wilt, Discolored Bark

As a member of the laurel family, spicebush is susceptible to laurel wilt, a fungal disease introduced from Asia. It causes leaves to wilt suddenly and blackens the trunk and stems. No cure exists for this disease. Immediately pull up the plant and discard it. Do not compost it.

Slow Growth

Spicebush prefers a sunny spot for flowering and thicker growth. When it gets too much shade, its flower production suffers, and it won’t grow densely, appearing more straggly. Also, keep the soil moist, or leaves will drop, leading to certain plant death.

Leaf Drop

Spicebush is a deciduous bush. It will enter dormancy as the temperatures drop, losing its leaves in the late fall or early winter. If spicebush has unseasonal leaf drop, look for signs of laurel wilt, such as darkening or fungal growth on the stems, trunk, and leaves.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Ornamental uses

Gardeners looking for a fragrant shrub to add a soft bit of color to their garden should consider the airy northern spicebush. It provides interest in many seasons, as its light green leaves turn yellow in autumn, at the same time as the female plant’s flowers turn into red berries. A butterfly, bee, and bird attractor, it’s equally at home in moderately dry or wetland gardens. Companion plants included Witch Hazel or Dogwood.

  • Other uses

Due to its habit of growing in rich woods, early land surveyors used spicebush as an indicator of good agricultural land. The leaves, buds, and new growth twigs can be made into a tea. The fruits can be dried, ground, and used as an allspice substitute.

Native Americans, including the Cherokee, Creek, and Iroquois used the plant for treatments in multiple ailments.

Many animals feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries of spicebush. Some mammals include whitetail deer, Eastern cottontail rabbit, opossums. Over 20 species of birds including both gamebirds and song birds such as ring-necked pheasant, bobwhite, ruffed grouse and others have been known to feed on spicebush. The berries are a favorite food of wood thrushes.

Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) Details

Common name Northern Spicebush, Spicebush, Spice Bush
Botanical name Lindera benzoin
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Slow
Harvest time Fall
Height 8 ft. 0 in. - 15 ft. 0 in.
Width 8 ft. 0 in. - 15 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Gold/Yellow