Spicebush (Lindera benzoin; Zones 4-9), sometimes called northern spicebush, is a lovely, native American woodland shrub that thrives in partial shade, such as it would have at the edge of a forest clearing. Spicebush grows to 10 feet tall, with pretty, teardrop-shaped leaves 2 to 5 inches long.
The entire plant is aromatic. The female plants produce fragrant yellow flowers in early spring, followed by small, bright-red oval fruit in autumn. (Because spicebush is dioecious, both male and female plants are needed for fruit production; check with your supplier to be sure you are getting both if you wish to obtain the berries.)
Use the fresh leaves in hot or iced tea; they do not retain their flavor well when dried. The twigs can be simmered in water for a warming tea any time of year.
In the fall, collect the red berries and dry them to use as a spice that has both sweet and savory uses. Sometimes sold as “Appalachian allspice,” spicebush can be used like allspice and makes a scrumptious ice cream and spice cake. The berries have a peppery note that makes them an excellent addition to meat rubs and marinades, as well.
The Ojibwa and Iroquois tribes treated spicebush berries as two different seasonings. They separated the seeds from the surrounding pulp and red skins. The pulp and skins were used for their sweet, allspice-like taste and the seeds for their peppery bite. If you want to separate the berries into two different spices, do so before drying or freezing as they are almost impossible to separate after preserving. Separated or whole, the berries have a high fatty oil content and can go rancid if stored at room temperature. Store both fresh and dried spicebush in the freezer. To use, grind in an electric coffee grinder. Note: Take care not to confuse Lindera benzoin with another native American shrub, Calycanthus floridus, commonly called “Carolina allspice” and also sometimes called “spicebush.”
Leda Meredith is a botanist, writer and instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, specializing in edible and medicinal plants. She is the author of Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes (Heliotrope Books, 2008).
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