Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spicebush Identified

Spicebush Swallowtail on milkweed
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.


Comfrey Cottages said...

I just discovered spicebush on our riverbank this weekend! I have just been reading up on how to tell the sexes apart. Nice post! thank you :) Leslie

Unknown said...

How do you use the berries you put in sugar and as for the vodka infused with the berries (is it the whole berry plus the seed or the red fruit part and do you drink the flavored vodka or cook with it? I dried some of the whole berry (seed & fruit) and ground it to put in pawpaw jam that I made today from leftover pawpaw in my freezer. Lori

The 3 Foragers said...

We have been told that the high oil content of the berry makes it go rancid if dried. We keep the whole berries either in vodka to use like an extract, or whole in sugar to make a flavored sugar. I then use the sugar or "extract" in a recipe. We also keep them whole in the freezer, but they oxidize and will turn black. Grating them fresh into dishes like apple pie or applesauce is the best way to use them, I grate them on a microplane. We have also added them to other things we ferment, like beers and wines, and it adds a nice allspice-y flavor.

Unknown said...

I bought some dried spicebush berries from the guy who started the Paw Paw festival in Ohio. I went to a conference that where he had a table selling paw paw products (jam and chutney), ramp pasta, etc as well. I don't know if they go rancid or not, but I ground a few as well of some I just dried into my paw paw jam with a little chopped spicebush red berry. I plan to try it soon and will update you on taste, although it appears it didn't thicken up as much as I wanted.

Ndantonio said...

This was a very helpful blog entry on Spicebush. Thank you for taking the time to do it, especially the helpful photos. We find Spicebush in Central Park, NYC without berries. There are several bushes, so I guess they are all one sex. The twigs made a great tea. And since it is early Nov, we used some yellow leaves by themselves for tea today. We wanted to see if the yellow leaves would taste good, and they did. We accidentally let them dry out on the kitchen table, for 48 hrs after picking, and they still tasted very spicy.