By Kaila Blevins
While on a volunteer trip in Orlando, Florida, I was desperate for bug spray. In the middle of December, the mosquitoes nibbled on any exposed skin they could find, leaving me and the rest of the unprepared Maryland native participants with patches of red swollen bumps on our ankles and arms. Our guides, a retired couple who volunteers with the state parks, became our heroes on the second day of the trip. During our lunch break, the husband saunters over to us, carrying a branch from a nearby shrub and states, “This is spicebush. Crush its leaves and rub it onto your arms. Keeps the bugs away and helps the itch.” Immediately, we passed the branch around, ripped the leaves off the branch, crumpled them, and rubbed the lemon-peppery scented oil onto our skin.
A couple years later, I would learn that spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has a multitude of uses. The fragrant multi-stemmed shrub is native to the margins of wetlands and along woodland streams in the Eastern United States. It can grow close to 10 feet tall, and in April, yellow flowers begin to appear on the branches. By the end of the summer, the flowers are replaced by cherry red fruits. Spicebush is integral to the native ecosystems, as it serves as the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and birds are known to snack on the seeds. However, Native Americans and early settlers relied on spicebush’s herbal properties.
Native Americans would brew tea with the bark, twigs, leaves, and berries. When ingested, the tea would induce sweating. The increased perspiration would help fight off fevers and ease body aches. In addition, ingestion would assist with removing intestinal parasites. The tea could be applied topically as well. Compresses soaked in spicebush tea would be applied to the skin to ease the pain from arthritis, rashes, bruises, and itching. Once settlers arrived in the new world, they sought help from the Native Americans.
The settlers did not know much about the peculiar plants growing in North America, so Native Americans taught them the herbal benefits of the native plants. Settlers used spicebush for similar ailments as well as typhoid fever. They also used the plant in culinary dishes. The dried seeds and bark became milder substitutes for allspice and cinnamon, respectively. Beyond its herbal uses, settlers used the presence of spicebush as an indicator for rich soil that could be converted into agricultural land.
Spicebush’s herbal properties may get overlooked by its ecological importance or showy yellow leaves in fall, but it was a staple for Native Americans, early settlers, and my volunteer trip. For more information on spicebush, check out HSA’s Essential Fact Sheet.
Photo Credits (from top): Author on field trip; spicebush flowers (courtesy E. Holden); spicebush fruit (courtesy E. Holden)
Keiffer, Betsy. “Lindera Benzoin.” Cultivation Notess, Sept. 1998, riwps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Lindera_benzoin.pdf.
“Lindera Benzoin.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=LIBE3.
“Lindera Benzoin.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lindera-benzoin/.
Nesom, Guy. “Spicebush.” Plant Guide, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program , 2003, plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_libe3.pdf.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Kaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.