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Native spicebush benefits wildlife

One of the pleasures of hiking the same trail year-round is observing seasonal changes, the emergence of spring ephemeral wildflowers, the return of migrating birds to the same places along the trail and the changing position of the sun.

In early April, one I look forward to is the yellow haze in the woodland understory as the native spicebush blooms.

Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a deciduous shrub native to the eastern United States and is hardy in zones 4 through 9. It is a member of the laurel family and a relative of our local sassafras.

As its name suggests, it emits a spicy scent when leaves, fruit or twigs are crushed. The “scratch-and-sniff” test is an easy way to identify this plant.

Although it prefers the moist to wet, humus-rich soils of shady woodlands, it is not fussy. It can tolerate clay and full sun, however, a combination of both can stress the plant and slow its growth.

It works well in a rain garden or along a stream or pond. It also is pH adaptable, growing in acidic or alkaline soil.

Spicebush can reach a height and width of 6 to 12 feet. The leaves are rounded and bright green in summer and turn a golden yellow in the fall. The yellow flowers open along the branches before the leaves appear.

This plant is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants. The flowers are not large, but their abundance along the branches coupled with an absence of leaves, makes for a delicate spring showing.

The fertilized flowers develop into shiny red berries, or drupes, in the fall.

As is the case with most native plants, it is important to wildlife for a variety of reasons. The early April blooms provide nectar for small flies and bees that return the favor by pollinating the flowers.

The fruit is a high-energy and high-fat food source for resident and migrating birds including catbirds, cardinals, wood thrush, kingbirds and vireos.

In addition to that, it is a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail, tiger swallowtail and several species of moths. It is not typically browsed by deer.

In your garden, consider spicebush as an alternative to the non-native (Asian) forsythia.

It requires little maintenance if planted in its preferred habitat and is not known to have any disease or insect problems.

The benefit to wildlife was enough to convince me I needed this plant.

I have not seen it in a nursery, but there are sources online. It is best to buy multiples if the hope is to have fruit.

Nursery stock is not mature enough to bloom, the only way to determine male and female plants.

I bought mine from an online native tree source as a bare root bundle of three. I put them in the ground, and they took easily.

When I saw my first spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, I knew I had made the right choice.

To learn more go to: https://go.osu.edu/spicebush.

Steffen is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Mahoning County.

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