(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 30, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Nobody gave me a script for growing up. If Aunt Bett told me to take a bite of a twig or a leaf, I did. And if she said to never touch it, I didn't. It was as simple as that. When it came to plants, she knew what she was talking about. Of course there was also my mother to contend with: "Don't you touch those pokeberries! You'll get that red juice all over you!" But she never said a word about the walnut stains that were left on my hands for months when I dealt with them. The difference was, I guess, there was no value in the pokeberries, but the walnuts were a necessity for her chocolate fudge. Surprisingly enough, Mom never noticed what I put in my mouth.
I dearly loved our spicebush. If the butterflies could take sips of it, then so could I. I wonder now which category I would have fit into: girly girl or tomboy? Of course we weren't categorized back in those days. Mom would have put me in the impossible category, I think, since I could be found in the top of the appletree dressed in ruffles and bows just as easily as ripped jeans and tee shirt, and usually chewing on a twig of one kind or another.
Now this brings me right to the spicebush. There was one growing on the bank of the stream that ran down from the mountain right beside my house. The creek was not very big, but there was always water in it, even on the hottest days of summer. The problem with the spice bush was that it grew on the far bank and I had to jump across the creek to get to it. Jumping was my favorite thing to do, since there had been a few years following a bout with polio when I couldn't jump. I jumped around so much mom asked me if I had thoughts of being a frog. I told her no, because I thought grasshoppers were much cuter than frogs. This was along about the same time I was hanging from branches by my knees trying to get my legs to grow. I sometimes hated being the smallest kid in my class. Short didn't deter me a bit in high school though, because I got my pick of all the guys, no matter their height.
I was hanging by my knees in the old maple tree, chewing on a twig from the spicebush, when Clifford came sauntering down the holler. "You're gonna choke on that stick hangin' upside down," he said. Clifford was a neighbor, my age, and very short just like I was. I didn't argue with Clifford because he was pretty smart. "I'm hanging so my legs will grow, and this ain't no stick, it's spicebush, tastes just like Christmas." It wasn't long before he joined me, hanging upside down by his knees, too. I shared my spicebush twig with him. "Tastes like pepper," he said. So we had a long conversation on the merits of flavors while we hung upside down by our knees. I told you Clifford was smart.
Twice the native shrub spicebush has come to the aid of Americans at war. During the Revolution spicebush berries were used by American housewives to replace allspice, which had previously been imported from England. Later, during the Civil War, spicebush leaves and twigs furnished the blockaded South with a substitute for foreign tea.
Colonial surveyors believed that where the spicebush grew, the soil would prove to be fertile farmland. The men and women who settled these lands also valued the spicy smelling bush for its medicinal properties. They made an extract of the leaves or bark to induce perspiration and thus break a fever. Doctors of the time also placed great faith in its powers as a tonic and as a cure for intestinal problems and colds. Some herbalists distilled from the oil in the berries a linament for rheumatism, bruises and neuralgia. The Indians made a tea from the twigs, which their women drank to ease the pain of childbirth.
Lindera benzoin is sometimes also called wild forsythia because it produces countless yellow flowers that appear while the twigs are still barren of leaves. It is a native of North America, and grows most often in moist woods and along stream banks. It can be found from southern Ontario and Maine south to Florida and west to Kansas and Texas. In some states it is an endangered species. It is a deciduous shrub that grows from 3 to 15 feet tall, and its clusters of tiny yellow flowers can be seen throughout March and April. The blooms appear before the smooth, pointed, alternate leaves, which give off a spicy fragrance when crushed. Small shiny bright red fruit that appear in July through September emits a spicy scent when squeezed. It was one of those bushes that I broke, crushed and squeezed quite often, because I knew that everytime, I could happily inhale its scent. It was interesting that the the tea made from its leaves and twigs had a lemony flavor, but the twig itself tasted to me like allspice. And then there was Clifford who thought it tasted like pepper.
I was told that a lot of the spices used for pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas were ground from the dried berries. For many years the ground berries were the only allspice that we used in our kitchen at home. Our ancestors also used the berries to season meats and in stews and soups. The pioneer women kept spice twigs in kitchens, they called them spicesticks and dropped them in soups and stews as they cooked.
It is a fast growing shrub, the spicebush, and it is the larval host for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail as well as the Spicebush Swallowtail, which carries its name. It provides berries for some birds, and there is no serious disease or insect problems with it. It provides a nice colorful addition to any garden. There is very little scientific data available to validate any claims that the spicebush has any true value medicinally, but it does serve cooks well as a spice. Even the blossoms in spring added to its dried leaves make a delicious sweet tea. I still add spicebush twigs to my potpourri, and quite often I will tie some twigs in a bundle and hang the bundles from my Christmas tree.
So Clifford and I hung by our knees from the limbs of the old maple, trading chews on the spicebush twig, solving world problems and deciding when we grew up we would be tall. It didn't happen for me, and I don't think Clifford grew very much in height either. But I doubt that either of us has let that stop us from doing whatever we wanted to do. We were the two who could climb to the top of the highest tree faster than anybody else, and we could hang by our knees from its most fragile branches, too.
I wonder if he remembers our deep conversations from all those years ago.
All photographs are from plantfiles. Thanks to these photographers for the use of their photos: Mgarr, DaylilySLP, Dwarfconifer, and Magpye.
Information is from family writings as well as verification from Botanical.com, and the book "Magic and Medicine of Plants", the Reader's Digest Association, Inc published in 1986,