March 28, 2012

Spicebush

I have been trying to grow our native spicebush, Lindera benzoin, for several years.

It's a woodland shrub that grows wild and is not really noticeable unless you look for the soft haze of tiny yellow flowers in March.  That's when you see how spicebush fills open forest areas.

The next street over from mine is called Spicebush Lane, so I guess our surrounding woods were at one time home to stands of spicebush plants.

It has wonderful qualities -- a spicy scent if you crush the leaves, its droopy fluttery leaves turn bright yellow in fall, and these delicate greenish yellow flowers pop out very early in the season.

It's a host for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, along with sassafras.  Red berries on female spicebush plants are a plus in the winter.  Just a really great plant all around.

It is supposed to be an easy to grow, no fuss, very pretty native shrub, but I have had the darndest time getting them going.

Although it looks like the haze of flowers covers a large plant in the top photo, you can see here that my plants are still little.

I planted these two in 2006, from two-gallon nursery containers.

What you don't see are the several spicebush plants that died in the past six years, or the two that are still out in the meadow but no taller than the weeds in summer.  They were planted in 2006 and 2007 but they have not grown.  I thought they were in too much sun, or soil that was too dry, but most sources say Lindera benzoin is a tough plant that can take shade or sun, moist or drier. 

A thriving, 10 foot tall mature spicebush will not overwhelm you, even in bloom, or in its golden fall color.  It's a subtle plant, an overlooked plant in all seasons, but a lovely one.


Mine are trying as hard as they can not to overwhelm me at all.

And they are succeeding.


19 comments:

  1. My friend grows them at the farm nursery and fields of them have such a wonderful scent. I always wished I could relay that in a post, don't you? Your shrubs look beautiful fronting the conifers. I think spruce, pine and fir make such good backdrops for flowering and colorful shrubs. It is such a good size and scale transition in the garden. Plus the differing textures add visual interest.

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    1. Donna, Thanks so much. I do like them in front of the confiers, but if they ever grow (if ever...) they will be awfully crowded there.

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  2. I love that plant, every part of it, but it doesn't love me back. Seems your experience is similar, though yours looks better than mine. Hmmm, methinks sources saying it's easy spout irrational exuberance.

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    1. Lee, well, it's good to know I have company in the frustrations of growing spicebush. There must be something we are both missing. The sources must indeed be irrational, if not just wrong.

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  3. You have to threaten to remove them to make them grow, right? Isn't that the way it works? Find the most amazing shrub to replace them with, get very excited about it, and they will probably perk right up. ;)

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    1. Heather, that approach actually works. Really does. A non-blooming dogwood finally burst into flower after four years, the day the chainsaw came out of a friend's shed in preparation for cutting it down.

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  4. I have a spicebush that is just finishing blooming. It is so pretty all year. I didn't have any trouble starting it. It grows where there is a shallow water table. Mabye that is what they like. The next native I want to grow is the Paw Paw tree. They are blooming here now. They are the only larval plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly. I would love to have them in my garden too.

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    1. Lisa, Spicebush must want more water than where I have mine sited. That has to be the explanation. Paw paws are wonderful --- ideally a small grove of them, which can look eerie and exotic.

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  5. Hang in there Laurrie, maybe they'll change their minds one of these days and have a sudden growth spurt. In the meantime they still look quite nice. I like the subtle yellow and droopy leaves in fall which is shown off well in front of the evergreens.

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    1. Marguerite, Thanks. They are subtle even when fuller and bigger, but even my non-growers do have nice form and color. I like them!

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  6. I learned about Spicebush on a walk through the woods with a bunch of kindergartners. The 2 teachers explained that spicebush was a native woodland shrub that is found near water. Not too close-but if you see Spicebush, you can find a stream nearby-usually down the hill. We learned about making slightly spicy cookies by grinding some of the bark into the flour. (they were good) Anyway, I came home after that hike w/ the kids and then recognized spicebush all over my yard in the back-along the woodland edges that were shadier and not too dry. So I would say they like it cooler and moister than the tag implies as that is where they grow in my CT yard naturally. And yours do look beautiful! They are getting a nice shape to them. Since they are a woodland plant, maybe add a nice layer of partially decomposed leaves under the mulch this spring.

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    1. Diane, What a great story about the kids in the woods finding spicebush shrubs. I am increasingly thinking mine are too dry by those spruces, and the ones out in the meadow are even more so. I'm going to do as you suggest and tuck in the rotting leaves from last season around them.

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  7. Laurrie, it looks to me like you are succeeding with at least a couple of the spicebush you planted. They really are a lovely, unassuming shrub/tree. I love Diane's suggestion to add a layer of decomposed leaves around the base of spicebush. But what about deer? Do they like it or leave it?

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    1. Joene, I did add some wonderfully decomposed leaves around the small trunks of the spicebushes today, then mulched. We'll see if they like it. The deer have never touched the spicebushes, even the ones out in the meadow, unprotected and sited right in their usual path. The spicy bark and leaves are a deterrent I think.

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  8. Hungry voles ate the roots of my spicebush nearly killing it a few years ago so I pulled it up and filled the area with something else. I think my dogs have killed enough voles, though, that justice has been served. The epimeidum you liked is 'Sulphureum'.

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    1. Tammy, I didn't realize dogs killed voles. I was ready to send our indoor cats out to hunt, but now I know dogs could do the job! That epimedium has a terrible name, but how pretty it is.

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  9. I've thought of getting a native spicebush, but like Sweet Betsy the fragrance is variable. The ones for sale at the NC Botanical Garden did not smell good unfortunately. Where did you get yours?

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    1. Sweetbay, I got the spicebush plants from mail order (Forestfarm in Oregon), and then added more from a local nursery near me in Connecticut. The local nursery got them from the "American Beauties" collection which are native plants grown by Pride's Corner wholesale nursery in Lebanon, CT and North Creek Nurseries in PA.

      Do your nurseries sell "American Beauties" plants?

      http://www.abnativeplants.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/home.home/index.htm

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  10. HI - Spicebush is one of the few shrubs thriving in a magical park near where I live in Philadelphia, called Wissahickon park (It's a gorge, really). Anyway: two things of note for this discussion: 1. I notice that the species is abundant in a variety of moisture levels, but what seems universally applicable is shade - it thrives as an understory shrub. 2. One of the reasons it's so abundant in the Wissahickon is because although we have an over population of deer, they do not browse it. Thanks very much for the discussion. Best of luck with your growing!

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