The spicebush shrub is a favorite spice we like to use to season teas and beers, and add to stewed apples or to baked goods. It is a deciduous shrub or small tree, known by several names: common spicebush, Benjamin bush, or wild allspice. It is native to eastern North America, ranging from Maine, through Kansas and into northern Florida. It is a favorite food of the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly and its larvae.
Spicebush grows as an understory shrub in wet forests, along trails, in swamps, and rich woodlands. In the early spring, they are often the first shrub or small tree to produce their flower clusters, which are small, yellow and fragrant. The flowers are produced before the leaves appear, and are either male or female. The shrub is not self-fertile, so both male and female plants must be present for the production of viable berries and seeds to be produced on the female shrubs.
The leaves are alternate, simple, oval and broader after the mid point of the leaf. They are bright green, about 2"-6" long. The bark is grey/brown and spotted with small bumps called lenticles. When picked fresh, the twigs can be used as a seasoning for teas and skewering meats over a grill, with a mildly spicy/citrusy flavor.
The berries are drupes,, about 1/2" long and oval, ripening from bright green to red in August and September. In the center of each berry is a seed covered with a dark, leathery shell. The berries are highly fragrant, like allspice or cloves mixed with lemon. Soon after the berries are picked, they oxidize to a dark reddish-black, so we preserve them several ways throughout the year to use in recipe. We add them to vodka, keep them in sugar, or freeze the whole berries, since they contain lots of volatile oils that dissipate if the berry is dried. Robert likes to add spicebush berries to beers that he brews.