Spice From Our Woods
Now is the time to gather the ripe berries of our native spicebush, Lindera benzoin, for use as tea, room fragrance or spice, a plant that has also been used medicinally both by local American-Indian tribes and European colonists.
Spicebush grows all the hills here, and I really only notice it in very early spring and in fall.
In March or April, spicebush unfurls its flowers. Each is small and rather insignificant. But when millions of them are in bloom, it is as if forest undestory – still-unleafed – fills with vaporous pale yellow clouds. Once they are done blooming, spicebush disappear, melting back in the general greenness of the woods. You only notice it if you happen to break off a twig or bruise a leaf – a sweet all-spice fragrance with a hint of camphor fills your nostrils. And of course you notice them again in September and October, when the bright shiny red berries dot the shrubs. They remind me of coffee berries that I grew up up with, but much smaller and not the same shape – but with that same vermillion brilliance that’s really popping at you. The fruit, about the size of my small fingernail, contains one seed. The seeds is more peppery and the pulp sweeter – so some people apparently separate them before storing them. Too much work. I think of them as native all-spice, and use pulp and seeds together.
Many birds eat the berries – and there is even a spicebush swallowtail, a beautiful mostly black swallowtail with hind-wings splashed green blue or vivid blue. They lay their eggs on the spicebush, and the larva will feed off the leaves. They also like sassafras – which is also very fragrant and blooms at about the same time early in the spring, in that same pale yellow hue. And a number of mammals also eat the leaves and twigs of spicebush. And they are edible for humans too! That’s not always the case that plants eaten safely by animal is safe for human consumption…
Twigs and leaves can be collected anytime for a pleasant tea or to simmer in hot water for a natural room fragrance. But berries should be collected now (actually 2 weeks ago would have been better)
Because they are rich in oil, some foragers (like Steve Brill) discourage drying them should they become rancid. Not an issue if you are using it for fragrance only: Drop a handful of berries in a small pan of hot simmering water. Perfect for the top of the woodstove in December! But those berries intended for tea or spice should be frozen, and ground as needed – I use a mortar and pestle but since the seed is not very hard, you could use a good sharp heavy knife over a cutting board if you are handy.
Some suggestions for using all spice berries in the kitchen:
Spicebush tea, of course! 1 tablespoon of chopped berries infused in1 cup of just boiled water and steeped for 15 minutes.
Spicebush ice cream: Make a Philadelphia-style ice-cream with the standard ratios of 2 cups cream, 2 cups half & half (or milk), 1 to 2 teaspoon crushed spicebush berries (infused in the hot milk or half& half), 3/4C to 1C sugar (or 1/2 to 3/4 C light honey)
Similarly infuse custard or pudding with the crushed berries
Use the berries as marinade (a traditional use, especially with game)
Use spicebush berries to season apple pie or pear cobbler or applesauce.
Warning! Don’t confuse spicebush with 2 other native shrubs with similar looking leaves and hard scarlet berries: Ilex laevigata (Smooth winterberries) or Ilex verticillata winterberry holly or American winterberry. Although those native hollies fruit later than spice bush, and don’t have that unmistakable fragrance, it’s critical to ID spicebush correctly. Eating holly berries can have vastly unpleasant results: they are considered mildly poisonous, a powerful emetic/laxative and can induce violent vomiting. Dogwood berries also ripen at roughly the same time. Again, their groth pattern and the bush look totally different. SO don’t go for just any red berries: learn to ID spicebush properly for a fragrant versatile native spice.