If I had 100 acres of my very own to garden in any way I wanted…I might plant a forsythia. I dabble in cut flower arrangements and there is something so hopeful and encouraging about a pretty vase with a tall forced branch or two of forsythia in full bloom in February on your toilet tank. (Yes, toilet tank. My first floral design teacher told me nothing says “class” like flowers in the bathroom and that has stuck with me through the years). But I would only plant forsythia if I had that much space. And I don’t. Forsythia has a characteristic that I do not tolerate in my gardens; 1 season of interest. There’s no room in my yard for a plant that is only interesting for a couple weeks.
Let me introduce you to Spicebush. Spicebush has a home in my garden. When singing the praises of this native shrub, I often refer to it as our native forsythia (because everyone it seems, knows what a forsythia is). Though Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is not actually a forsythia, it blooms at the same time, filling our woodlands with petite yellow blooms announcing spring is here. Not only does this shrub have multiple seasons of visual interest blooming in early spring, large leaves turning a bright yellow in fall and bright red berries persisting into winter, but it delights the nose as well. Spicebush is so named because of the spicy fragrance released when any part of the plant is crushed or scratched. I think it smells terrific, I often wonder why they don’t make Spicebush perfume or cologne. Eau de Lindera. Those of you familiar with the spicy scent of Sassafras may find it reminiscent of that. It’s a scratch and sniff plant if there ever was one. Next time you are on a hike in the early spring woods anywhere between Maine and Florida, gently scratch the bark (Gently! it is the protective layer of the plant after all!) and inhale. From that point on, to you, that scent will mean spring has arrived. If you are hiking after the flowers are finished and before the berries have formed, you may not know you are near a Spicebush until you brush up against it. Your hike will be delayed ever so slightly while you inhale the scent of spring.
If you are considering spicebush as an alternative to the ubiquitous forsythia here are some things to remember. It grows about 10 feet high and wide so give it room to thrive. The beautiful flowers are small, so plant it someplace where you can enjoy them up close. Spicebush grows naturally in wetter forests but will tolerate dry sun too. The magic of plants that live in areas that are wet sometimes and dry sometimes, like along river edges, is that they can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions. The bright red berries only occur on the female plants, so be sure to plant a few of these shrubs to ensure you get these berries. The good news is the male flowers are a bit showier than the female, the female shines in fall when she produces fruit. The bad news is that nurseries still don’t sell ‘male’ and ‘female’ Spicebush labeled as such, so your best bet is to plant a bunch of them. Wondering where to find Spicebush for sale? Start here.
While a terrific addition to our landscapes simply for its multiple seasons of interest and sensory value, the spicebush offers something very important to the local ecosystem. The Spicebush is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail. This butterfly is beautiful as are most butterflies, but the caterpillar is really spectacular! Check out this website for pictures of the Spicebush Swallowtail in all its life cycles. Spicebush swallowtail relies on only two plants Spicebush and Sassafras. By adding this plant into your landscape, not only are you adding more interest to your landscape but you are providing much needed larval food source for a native butterfly.
Still not convinced this is a plant for your yard? How about this? Spicebush is NOT PREFERRED BY DEER! I do not use the phrase ‘Deer Resistant’ when talking plants, because deer will eat anything at some point. A high concentration of fragrant oils give Spicebush that wonderful smell, and in general, deer don’t prefer plants high in oils. Having trouble with deer eating your landscape plants? Try a Spicebush!
I could spend more time bad-mouthing forsythia, reminding you what a tangled brown blob it becomes in winter after zero fall color. I could mention that it will spread through your garden and beyond by layering itself each time an arching branch touches the ground, but I would rather spend my time convincing you that Spicebush is the way to go. The scent, the flowers, the berries, the butterflies. It’s a no-brainer!