Cold air spills over my mountain as I brave the rain and gloom that threatens to chill me to the bone. Desperate for a sign that the gloomy season will be over soon my eyes scan the wilderness for subtle changes in the color of the twigs and buds. I Am not disappointed as my gaze lands on the sunny colored tufts on the fringes of my forest. The Spicebush is in bloom! That was actually a month ago. I was so thrilled to see them that I ran straight up the steep grade to get closer.
The flowers are similar to Witch Hazel but the easiest way to tell the difference between them at,a distance is that witch hazel blooms in late fall and they are more frilly. For comparison, I covered witch hazel on December 14th 2019 in Forage Friday post #37.
While witch hazel yields a terrific astringent Spicebush yields a sweet lemony tea. The flavor is in the leaves and inner bark and is available all year. However, the inner bark is easiest to harvest in Spring when the sap is up. Otherwise, just prune off the smaller twigs and rinse them well to remove any debris. The flavor isn’t really like lemonade. It’s more like lemon candy.
The tree itself is in laurel family and was a sign of good agricultural land in the settlement days. I have only tried it as a tea but I imagine that the leaves were probably used by Native Americans in preparing fish. A lot of things that I’ve read about the way primitive cultures worldwide cook fish is by first wrapping the fish in ” aromatic leaves”, then sealing it up in wild clay so that it has it’s own little terracotta style oven and it’s dropped right in the coals or even buried in the ground with hot coals. I don’t know for a fact that Spicebush leaves were used but once you crush a handful of the fresh leaves and inhale the scent it makes perfect sense that it would be a prime choice.
It’s also said that Native Americans used the tea medicinally for a variety of health issues.
The berries were made into a tea for coughs, cramps and to induce the menstrual cycle. And an oil from the berries was made into an ointment for rheumatism.
The bark was used for a “blood purifier”, rheumatism, colds and to induce sweating.
I should mention that when I was introduced to Spicebush it was under the name of Carolina allspice. The flavor of the berries is more like allspice from the store and not lemony at all. One of the group’s members when told that the berries were edible yanked several off of a nearby branch and popped them into his mouth. It wasn’t nearly as pleasant as he expected. The face contorted and before anyone could say anything he spit the berries a good 20 feet into the forest. Here’s the trick. In order to get the allspice flavor only the flesh of the fruit is used. The seed is discarded and the flesh is dried, ground into a powder and sweetened before adding to a dish.
Image Titled “Spicebush Leaves 42420a”
One of the “field uses” if Spicebush is that the lemon scent helps hide you from biting insects like mosquitoes. Especially if you have some wild mint to mix them with.
Image Titled Spicebush Leaves 42420b
The tree itself is also used in landscapes. It seems to be disease resistant and doesn’t seem to mind being pruned at all. The one in tonight’s feature image is too surrounded by other trees that are in leafing out so I wasn’t able to get a good shot of the whole tree but it’s growing almost sideways out of the mountain with interesting twists in the branches and trunk. I think it would take well to being planted in partial shade and shaped like a Bonsai tree.
Do you have any use ideas for such a Bush? If so let me know in the comments below.
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