Whenever faced with a partially shaded condition and decent garden soils, Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is always one of the first plants I recommend. It has long been one of my favorites with its early spring yellow flowering, its red fruit and clear yellow fall color.
Spicebush is a dioecious native shrub that grows between 5 and 15 feet tall. To produce fruit you need male and female plants. Its natural habitat includes rich deciduous woodlands, bottomland forests and shaded seeps where loamy soils include decaying organic matter. The dominant overstory trees are likely to be sugar maple and American beech.
Known as our native “forsythia” for its early yellow flowering, small clusters of flowers cover this shrub along the branches before leaf out much like the more familiar redbud. Spicebush is a lovely spring addition to any shade garden. It does well in traditional gardens and can even be planted in full sun if soil moisture is maintained.
The flowers are fragrant, and leaves and small stems release a spicy scent when they are crushed. This aromatic character helps deter hungry deer. Crushing a leaf and smelling it for its telltale fragrance is an easy way to identify this plant.
While flowers of male plants are felt to be showier, it is the female that produces the bright red drupes in the fall. These are attractive more than a dozen songbirds. I remember sitting outside last fall and watching a crowd of Cedar Waxwings make repeated trips to a group of Spicebush until they were all but emptied. Fall color is a clear yellow.
One big reason to try to include spicebush in your garden – where it adapts nicely – is that this species is one of only two plants that is host to the caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly and the Prometheus Moth which eat the leaves. The flowers are actually pollinated by various small bees and flies.
The size of this native shrub is a good scale for a home garden. Have a place where soils stay moist? This may just be the plant for you! Scatter several around the yard or in a cluster to better ensure that you get male and female plants.
For more information visit www.illinoiswildflowers.info.