by Sarah (former Allen County Parks Outdoor Educator & Volunteer Coordinator)
Two weeks ago, I went out for a hike to check out the spring wildflowers. It wasn’t the little white flowers on the ground that demanded my attention, but the spicebush blossoms. Tiny explosions of highlighter-yellow line the branches of this incredible shrub. Among the bare branches of the other forest shrubs and saplings, it seems to flash raw sunshine through the woods.
It reminds me of the forsythias of my childhood, an ornamental that bloomed early with great profusions of bright yellow flowers. Mom made sure each of our houses had at least one or two forsythias. (Upon further research, I discovered that “forsythia of the woods” is actually a nickname for this plant. Guess I’m not as original as I’d like to think I am.) The bare twig always reminds me of a dirty green crayon, missing its paper wrapper. The leaves are simply a generic leafy green, once they’ve unfurled from their buds. The best, or most fun, way to identify this plant is by scent. If you scratch the surface of a twig, and sniff the bare wood underneath, the spicy aroma is almost overwhelming.
Spicebush is a wonderful native plant, with many uses. I’m told that you can take a twig of spicebush, and use it stir your ice tea, adding great flavor. You can even make a straight tea from the twigs. If you’ve neglected to bring enough water on your hike, supposedly you can chew on a spicebush twig to freshen your mouth. It has been used in a variety of medicinal concoctions, for everything from tonics to regulating menstrual cycles.
Personally, I think tea is the best use for this plant. I’ve even read stories that colonial Americans used spicebush tea during the boycott of British tea. My recommendation is to start with the swizzle stick in the iced tea option, and work your way up to pure spicebush tea. As always, you may want to consult your doctor first, to avoid allergic reactions and any other interactions, as spicebush is known to have medicinal qualities.
However, there is nothing wrong with simply enjoying spicebush for its aesthetic qualities. This not-so-tall woody plant is great for landscaping, especially since it is native to our Indiana landscape. It may be tricky to find in your local nursery, but you can certainly call around, or go online to order your own.
Using native plants for landscaping has so many benefits. First, you demonstrate Indiana pride by showcasing native flora around your home. Also, there are many plants invading our natural areas because of the spread of ornamental species. Up until a few years ago, I had a friend who sold purple loosestrife in her nursery, a plant that is now taking over many of our wetlands. This is one example of many. Using native plants also promotes your yard as wildlife habitat for some of Indiana’s most beautiful creatures. Our butterflies, moths, birds, and more need these plants in order to survive. Many butterflies require specific plants for their larval/caterpillar stage. The spicebush swallowtail, for example, will only eat spicebush, sassafras, and possibly magnolia and prickly ash foliage.
Though not as full-petaled as forsythia blossoms, spicebush flowers are still showy enough to be absolutely beautiful. Look for this shrub the next time you are out for a hike, or consider adding one to your yard. It will feed our butterflies, give shelter to the songbirds, and is sure to bring you sunshine, even on a drizzly day.