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Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a Comprehensive Guide in 9 Sections

Introduction

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a common understory shrub in the forests of eastern North America. It has fragrant yellow/green flowers that appear in the early spring and is the host plant for two species of butterflies and one moth. This shrub can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

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Taxonomy and Naming of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Herbarium specimen of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) — Carnegie Museum, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
Public Domain Dedication
, via Index Kewensis

Taxonomy

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) was originally described by Carl Von Linnaeus as Laurus benzoin in Species Plantarum (1753). The genus name was later changed in 1851 to the current name, Lindera benzoin. A member of the Laurel Family (Lauraceae), there are three forms known — ‘Rubra’ and ‘Xanthocarpa’ (NC State Extension) and ‘Green Gold’ (Wikipedia).

Synonyms

  • Benzoin aestivale
  • Benzoin aestivale var. pubescens
  • Lindera benzoin var. pubescens

Meaning the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Lindera, is named for Johann Linder, a Swedish botanist. The species name, benzoin, is Arabic for aromatic gum (Missouri Botanical Garden), presumably from the scent that the shrub gives out.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name derives from the scent of the shrub. When the bark is bruised or if you are in a large group of them, they give off a spicy scent. Other names, such as northern spicebush and wild allspice, follow a similar idea. Another name is Benjamin Bush, possibly coming from the species name.

Physical Description of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Yellow flowers of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in a park-like setting.
Spicebush in a Garden setting — Dan Keck from Ohio, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a shrub or small understory tree.
  • Height: 6 to 15 feet
  • Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternate, entire, and oblong to ovate. They range from 2 to 6 inches in length and 1 to 2 inches wide.
  • Flower Color: yellow to green and red flowered form in Rhode Island (Champlin 1977)
  • Blooming Period: Early spring (March -April)
  • Fruit type and period: This shrub has a drupe that is red and matures in the summer to fall. One yellow form, ‘xanthocarpa’ is known from Massachusetts (Lynch 2012).

Range of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in the United States and Canada

Range map of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in the United States and Canada.

This shrub is found in eastern North America from Texas to Maine, except for southern Georgia and peninsular Florida. It is also found in the province of Ontario in Canada. It is considered to be rare in the states of Maine and Vermont. It has also been introduced in Europe.

Habitat

Mixed Mesic Hardwood forest in Delaware.
Mesic Hardwood Forest, DE — author image

This shrub is found in the understories of rich mesic hardwood forests, swamps, floodplains. It is often an indicator of rich high pH soil. In gardens it likes places that have partial shade and can handle a variety of moisture conditions.

Hosted Species

Spicebush swallowtail on a lavender-colored flower.
Spicebush Swallowtail — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Host species include Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and the Palamedes Swallowtail (P. palamedes). It also hosts the Promethea Silkmoth (Callosamia promethea).

Other Supported Wildlife

Wood thrush on a branch.
Wood Thrush — Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The fruits of this shrub are eaten by numerous song and gamebirds and mammals large and small.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Is this shrub considered to be poisonous?

This plant is not listed as being poisonous by the NC Extension Gardener.

Does this plant have any Native American uses?

According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database, this plant has been used for respiratory diseases and teas by Native Americans.

Gardening with Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Yellow flowers of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in a park-like setting.
Yellow flowers of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) in a garden — Dan Keck from Ohio, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardiness

Spicebush is hardy in zones 5 to 9. If your garden is within these zones, you can likely grow this shrub if you have the right soil and exposure.

Optimal Conditions

This shrub, being from the understory, likes places that have partial shade and can handle a variety of moisture conditions.

References

  • Champlin, Richard L. 1977. Red Form of Lindera-Benzoin. Rhodora 79: 166-166.
  • Lynch, Richard. 2012. A Rare Find: Yellow-Fruited Spicebush (Lindera benzoin forma xanthocapum). Arnoldia 69: 24-28.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer for Silphium Design LLC.

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