Spice World

I’ve discovered a native shrub-tree that is a real find for gardeners. The native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a species that has lots to offer both the gardener and local biodiversity.

Spicebush (also called wild allspice) is northern dwelling member of the wider laurel family and has a large range in eastern North America. It is an adaptable understory tree that can be found in lowlands, marsh edges, and woodlands. Forest animals such as possums, raccoons and rabbits feed on the spicebush, pollinators enjoy the flowers and use it as a host, and birds eat the fruit and help spread the seeds.


Spicebush via WikiCommons                                                                                                              Image ~  USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA –

Here’s what makes spicebush a winner:

  • It is a large shrub so it can look like a small scale tree in the smallest of urban spaces. It grows 6-9′ tall and equally wide.
  • It offers springtime flowers. The spicebush puts out yellow floral bundles in the early spring. While the individual blossoms are not showy, the shrub becomes eye-catching and visually interesting with bare branches adorned with small yellow pom-poms. Enjoy it’s beauty while it’s providing early-season food for native pollinators.
  • It offers fall colour. Spicebush bookends the growing season with yellow displays. It ends the season with a show of bright yellow leaves on its wide branches.
  • Female plants produce fruit – small, edible, glossy-crimson berry-like drupes ripen in fall. The berries of spicebush feed birds like wood thrushes, robins, kingbirds, and catbirds. Spicebush is so popular with migratory birds, you might never see a berry.
  • It’s scented; that’s how it got its name ‘spicebush’. The scent from the leaves, flowers, fruit and stems is described as being clove-like, citrusy and spicy. I planted mine in October – to me they smelled tangy.
  • It’s a primary host plant for gorgeous pollinators you will want to draw to your space! Spicebush is a favoured food of the day-flying spicebush swallowtail butterfly’s famously charming caterpillars and the large night-flying  promethea silkmoth’s larvae. It is also favoured by other swallowtails (such as eastern swallowtail).
  • It can handle acid or alkaline soils and short periods of very wet or moderately dry soil. It has excellent adaptability in lowlands and wet soils.
  • Spicebush is a rain garden superstar that should be recognized for it’s full potential. Rain gardens are low-lying areas built to accommodate downpours and short-term puddles- with water flowing from your driveway, roof and gutter system. Rain gardens use water-tolerant plants and create a beautiful, ecologically-smart,  low-maintenance way to support our biodiversity, streams, and water table.
  • Spicebush is very cold-hardy in our area once established.
  • It thrives in part-shade conditions which many gardens have and many gardeners struggle with. For gardens with those impossible low, wet, partly-shady areas, this is an underused gem!

Eastern tiger swallowtail in a garden at Altona Forest’s edge – thanks to BAMONA for sighting identification. Both eastern tiger and Canadian swallowtails are in our area.

Does Carolinian native spicebush grow wild in Altona Forest? I don’t know – but I hope so!  I am not sufficiently skilled to be able to identify them, but the current natural range includes the Niagara area, Bruce Peninsula, and as far north-east as Belleville. Altona Forest’s high water table and wet sun-dappled forest offers ideal growing conditions. If you’ve seen them in Altona Forest or have grown them in your garden, please share your insights.

Planting native species often begins with a hard look at the conditions and constraints of your space: is it wet or dry through the season, how much light will the target spot receive on a daily basis (you can’t cheat light conditions), how much space does the mature shrub/tree require, your soil conditions. Spicebush is an easy fit and problem solver. The only catch is that this native is tricky to transplant because it takes time, regular watering, and care to re-establish itself. Once established, it’s low maintenance.


The very first flower on my spicebush – planted in early October blossomed in late April

While the weather is hot, dry, and hostile to planting right now, the year’s best time to plant shrubs and trees begins in September. Fall heralds in warm days, a little more rain, cool nights, and sun-warmed, welcoming earth; shrubs and trees settle in well (with a little consistent watering). I hope this will inspire you for fall planting of this and other native species.


PLEASE NOTE: A coloured Province or State means this species occurs SOMEWHERE in that Province/State. Ontario is coloured, regardless of the limited areas where spicebush grows naturally. Range map provided courtesy of the USDA website and is displayed here in accordance with their policies

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Spicebush Overview and Photos

Growing Conditions Spicebush

About Spicebush (wiki)

Shrub Overview

Spicebush Characteristics

USDA Plant Guide (pdf)

Spicebush Importance to Birds

Pictorial Blog Post – Spicebush and Biodiversity

Designing Your Landscape for Wildlife

How to Select Native Plants (Credit Valley Conservation Authority)

Ordering Spicebush (for Ajax, Toronto or York – Pickering does not participate in the YourLeaf program. I have sourced my shrub from a small independent grower)

Human Uses for Spicebush

**This is not the same plant as Carolina Allspice – another aromatic eastern NA native worth your consideration.

Spice World ~ © 2016 Natasha G



This entry was posted in Along the Trails, Forest-Friendly Practices, Gardening for Biodiversity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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