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Monday, March 11, 2013

Shady Garden Herb - Spicebush

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Spicebush is one of the earliest herb bushes to flower in the spring. Some years it's blooming in late February and ours was just beginning. But this week it's in full form. The flowers are tiny - although in my photo above the look deceptively larger. The fragrance is sweet but faint, the kind of smell you notice while walking in the woods but can't quite detect where it's coming from. This is a plant I came to love, thanks to my late friend, Billy Joe Tatum (who I've written about many times here, before).

Spicebush berries in the fall, also good for seasoning.

Spicebush is one the few shade-loving herbs. It will grow in dense shade or part sun, even finding its way into open meadows. The plant is native from Ohio down into Eastern Texas and as far north as Central Missouri. It can grow out of its native region and likes moderate to moist soil conditions. It grows to the size of a lilac bush and spreads very slowly by root division.

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly on spicebush leaves.

Why is this such a good herb to grow? The leaves, twigs and red berries are all excellent for cooking. It's especially good for wild game, venison, stews and the like. My friend Billy Joe, used to cook venison using a combination of spice bush leaves/twigs or berries, along with red wine, soy sauce and garlic, making a marinade for the venison. After 12 hours marinating, the venison was cooked slowly until tender.

The leaves, twigs and berries are also used to make a winter tea when you have a sore throat or fever and is an old-time folk remedy. This is a good plant to grow if you want an unusual but native plant for your shade garden. There's also the bonus of bright yellow leaves in the fall!

If you do a Google search for spicebush plants, you'll find several nurseries that sell them. Happy almost spring!

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