Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) of the Laurel (Lauraceae) family occurs in the U.S. from Texas to Nebraska to Michigan thence east and south. In Arkansas, the species occurs statewide. The genus name recognizes 18th century Swedish botanist, Johann Linder. The specific epithet derives from the Arabic for “aromatic gum.” Other common names include northern spicebush and wild allspice.
This deciduous understory shrub, 6 to 10 feet tall and equally wide, with multiple spreading slender stems, forms a dense clump. It prefers full to partial shade in moist to wet, fertile, loamy soils found in wooded bottomlands, floodplains, seeps and on rich slopes. New-season branches are light green, transitioning to tan the second year, then to a shiny brown with small raised white spots that allow aeration (lenticels). Older main stems become dark brown and bumpy. In dry summers, some or all stems may dieback to the roots; however, with improved soil moisture, regrowth occurs. Stems, leaves and fruit are strongly and pleasantly fragrant. This dioecious shrub (separate male and female plants) blooms in early spring before the leaves expand.
Alternate, entire (smooth edged) and rather thick leaves are a medium green on upper surface and lighter on lower surface. Leaves, up to 5 inches long and 2½ inches wide, are oblong-elliptical and broadest just above mid-leaf. Smaller leaves tend to be more oval. Leaves are tapered at both ends with the base being more gently tapered. Petioles are up to a half-inch long. Leaves become yellow in fall.
Photo 1: In mid-November, leaves may still be showy. Round brown buds (red arrows) produce a cluster of flowers the following spring.
Round flower buds on current year’s growth become apparent in late fall at most leaf axils. The brown exterior scales on buds falls off as flower clusters develop in early spring. Up to six flowers per cluster, on short smooth pedicels, grow from a common point. Male flowers, less than one-fourth inch wide, have nine stamens while female flowers have up to 18 staminodes (sterile stamens) surrounding the pistil. Stamens and staminodes are exserted (projected beyond the petals). Color of pedicels, sepals and flower parts have slight variations of light yellow.
Photo 2: By mid-March, the large open shrubs produce numerous flower clusters on previous year’s growth.
Photo 3: Flowers open while new leaves are mostly absent. Lenticels are scattered along stems.
Flowers of female plants produce an elongated ovoid drupe (fleshy mesocarp with one stone, like a peach), less than half-inch long, that changes from a shiny green to bright shiny red in late summer into fall. The red drupes are especially noticeable as leaves change to yellow and fall off. The fruit is relished by wildlife.
Photo 4: In early September, fruit becomes red. Note a more heavily fruited stem in shadow at upper left.
Photo 5: In mid-November, all leaves have dropped. Note lenticels on these smaller branches, as compared to larger branch in Photo 3.
For a shaded or partially sunny large garden or natural area with moist soil, spicebush should be welcomed. In late winter, the wispy-looking inflorescence seen at a distance is a valid sign of spring. Spicebush may become lost among summer’s greenery, but with late summer into fall, the yellow leaves and red fruit are striking. Spicebush is a significant host plant for Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and occasional host plant for Promethean Silkmoth (Callosamia promethea).
A second species in the genus found in Arkansas is pondberry (Lindera melissifolia). This endangered species is one of five in the state that are listed as “endangered” or “threatened” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. It is a smaller and clonal shrub of wetter habitats (bottomland hardwood forests and sand ponds). Pondberry leaves are more elongated and tapered at the tip and the fruits are slightly larger. Pondberry is also found in Missouri and Mississippi, historically in Louisiana, and from Alabama to North Carolina. In Arkansas, it is limited to the far northeastern portion of the state and a small area in the southeast. Other common names for pondberry include southern spicebush and hairy spicebush.
Photo 6: ANPS Members, including Eric Sundell and Brent Baker, examine pondberry, a close relative of spicebush, during an ANPS field trip on May 6, 2012. Eric and Brent are botanists who serve as editors of Know Your Natives.
Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl, except for Photo 6 by member Jeanette Vogelpohl