The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 23, 2004



Name: Spicebush or Lindera benzoin. Other common names include Benjamin bush, Benzoin bush, and "Forsythia of the wilds." The spicebush is named because of the spicy fragrance you get if you crush a few leaves or scrape the bark. You can also release the scent by breaking off a dead twig.

When and where seen: Many of the spicebushes around town were in full bloom on Patriots Day. Some had flower buds that were only beginning to open so I expect you will still be able to find it in bloom this weekend and perhaps the next. There are a lot in the lower, wetter parts of the Towle Woods and there are some near the Maple Street bridge. On the walk to Concord with the Minutemen I spotted some spicebushes hanging out happily in their home beside a stream while the farmers were on their way to battle — I called these ones Spice W. Bush.

Characteristics: If you are in the woods in April and see a bush near a stream or pond, with multiple stems and small greenish-yellow flowers clustered around the stem, chances are it is a spicebush. It is a low, spreading understory plant with a height of 6 to 10 feet. It is as wide as it is tall. The common name of "forsythia of the wilds" is somewhat appropriate since it blooms around the same time as forsythia, the flowers are yellow, they appear before the leaves, and the twigs have little white markings. It is different from forsythia in that its flowers are comparatively small, and the petals are round and have a greenish cast. It's odd that of the two, the spicebush, a so-called "wild" plant, is subtle and elegant while the forsythia, a "cultivated" bush, is vigorous and uninhibited and a likely candidate for a reality TV show.

Life history: Spicebush blooms after the red maples and the skunk cabbages, but before most other wild plants. Male and female flowers are on different trees. The leaves come out as the flowers are finishing. In fall the foliage turns a yellow-gold, and the berries ripen to a red color. The seeds which are dispersed by birds, may germinate the following spring or several years later. The spicebush also reproduces from root sprouts.

Food chain: The spicebush is the main host plant for the large, strikingly-marked caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. The caterpillars also feed on sassafras which is in the same botanical family as spicebush, the Lauraceae. (There are young Sassafras trees in the Towle Woods not far from the spicebushes.) Spicebush berries are eaten by thrushes. Native Americans used the dried berries as spice, and made medicinal concoctions from leaves and other parts of the plant.

References: William Cullina, New England Wild Flower Society, Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines, 2002.

Authorship of the Biodiversity Corner is open to all. Ideas for topics are also welcome. The only requirements are that the subject exists in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Of the hundreds of thousands of species we could pick from, so far we have covered eighty-seven. Send a note to Kay Fairweather at 392 School St, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito