THE BORDER LIFE


Spicebush
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 4/10/96

The initial signs of the coming of spring are like revelations made to a prophet.  By the middle of March, the golden-yellow flowers of the spicebush are adorning an otherwise bleak, late winter stream bank or fluvial plain. This plant loves water so much that it is said that, wherever it grows, the water table cannot be far below. Years of encountering this spring harbinger along our local rivers has made the spicebush one of my favorite seasonal experiences and with its sunny clustered blossoms, a fresh and bright invitation to the new season.

Upon finding the flowering spicebush, with its peculiar power to awaken me out of my winter doldrums, I always snap a twig to sniff its spicy fragrance or chew through to its richly scented sap. With both a striking floral appearance and its sweet smell and taste, all that is left for this plant to do is to emit an equally beautiful call! I thought that I heard it quietly humming a welcoming hymn to spring, in harmony with the water rushing by in the nearby flowing stream.

The spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a member of my favorite family of plants - the Laurel family. Among its members worldwide are the avocado, cinnamon and camphor trees. The spicebush's local cousin in the Triangle area is the sassafras tree. The oils from these laurel family plants are particularly aromatic and are known to possess great healing powers for humans. After a bite from a copperhead snake five years ago, several cups of fresh, deep red sassafras tea quickly removed signs of bloodclotting in my leg. The traditional use of spicebush tea was as an antipyretic or fever reducer.

The specific scientific name of spicebush, benzoin, returns us to the east on an Arab trader's dhow! Luban jaawi, an Arabic expression meaning Javanese frankincense, became benjui in Spanish, then benjoim in Portuguese, further evolving to benjoin in middle French, before finally becoming benzoin in Latin. The Lu was mistaken as an Arabic definite article by European traders and dropped early in its transformation. Having worked as a translator for many years in the Middle East, my imagination is stirred with the spicebush's oriental connection, even if it be only etymologic.

The flowers of the two sexes are usually born on separate plants, with blossoms of each sex needed in order that berries be produced on the female plant. After flowering, large oval-shaped leaves cover the shrub or treelet. A twelve foot high spicebush would be a giant. It is a well-branched shrub, with a greenish to grayish smooth bark, but conspicuously covered with lenticels. By August a flashy red drupe with a hard pit appears as its oily fruit. This fruit can be dried and powdered for use as a local allspice. Low feeding, frugivorous tropical migrant birds, like the wood thrush, will gorge themselves on these spicy drupes to provide energy for their epic fall return to their southern tropical wintering grounds.

As I meditate on the blooming of the spicebush this spring, I have also decided to make practical use of this special plant. Besides my annual spring tea made from crushed spicebush twigs, this season I am following the advice of Barrie Kavasch, an ethnobotanist from Connecticut. She suggests infusing our bottles of apple vinegar with twigs of spicebush for added flavor. The active principle in spicebush, cinnamyl, will give my vinegar a unique outdoorsy taste.

Spicebush can be found along streams, rivers and swamps in the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. In North Carolina it grows in the majority of our counties, but is more prominent in the Piedmont and mountain regions. It can be observed following creek beds in the mountains up to medium elevations. In Durham County it occurs along feeder creeks flowing into our northern Eno, Little and Flat Rivers. In the southern part of our county, it is encountered in the swampy floodplains of New Hope Creek and its tributaries.

If these regions are too remote for some of us, spicebush can be planted to make a nice addition to our backyard garden area. Often referred to as the "Forsythia of the wilds,'' this attractive floral member of our riverine habitats is ready to spice up even the backyards of those seeking an early spring tonic or to have their thoughts gently wafted to the Orient! 
 
Photo by Eddie Jones, Litzsinger Road Ecology Center.: spicebush bloom