Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a native shrub that is commonly found in rich, moist woods throughout Kentucky. It blooms in the early spring, usually March or April, before its leaves appear. The small yellow flowers are grouped in clusters along the branches. Spicebush is a dioecious plant which means that some of the plants produce all male flowers and some of the plants produce all female flowers.
Spicebush flowers are pollinated by several species of small flies and bees. Because they bloom so early, most of the butterflies and moths haven’t emerged yet so the butterflies and moths don’t make use of the flowers. However, spicebush is still a very valuable plant for butterflies and moths. The leaves are the primary food for several caterpillar species. The caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus), Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia promethea) are three of the most common species that use spicebush as a host plant. Deer and rabbits will also occasionally browse the leaves.
Throughout the summer, fruit that start out looking like little, green B-Bs develop from the fertilized female flowers. In late summer and early fall, the fruit ripens and turns bright red. The fruit are a favorite of many species of birds. Raccoons and opossums have also been seen eating the fruits. After eating the spicebush fruit, the birds or other animals continue with their normal activities which includes going other places. The seed will pass through the animal’s digestive system and eventually be deposited in a new location along with its own little bit of fertilizer. Spicebush can also spread locally through clonal sprouts.
There is a growing interest in incorporating native plants into gardens and home landscaping plans. Often, this interest focuses on native wildflowers; however, spicebush is a great example of a native shrub that can easily be grown as a native landscape shrub or small tree in semi-shady lawns. Spicebush provides year-round interest and valuable backyard wildlife habitat. Its early, yellow flowers make it a natural replacement for forsythia shrubs. Like forsythia, it can create a hedge; however, it doesn’t spread nearly as fast as forsythia. Spicebush leaves are a medium green that creates a nice backdrop to other landscape plants. The leaves also have a pleasant, spicy smell when crushed. In the fall, spicebush leaves turn a brilliant yellow creating a pretty contrast with the red berries if the birds don’t eat the berries before the leaves turn.