Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Spicebush is a North American woodland shrub with aromatic leaves and spicy berries that is worthy of greater recognition.

Medicinal effects

The spicebush is in the Lauraceae family. This shrub provides aromatic, astringent, tonic and diaphoretic (promotes sweating) actions. The leaves make a tea beneficial for digestion and the fruits can be used to settle digestion. Spicebush contains sesquiterpene lactones and camphor (Cao et al., 2016). The name of spicebush is due to the spicy scent of allspice of the crushed leaves, stems and berries. It has dark green alternate leaves which are simple and smooth-edged, which turn bright yellow in autumn. Tiny yellow sweet-smelling flowers appear in clusters in early spring before the leaves. Red berries form in the autumn but are usually hidden under the leaves (Foster and Duke, 1990).

Constituents of this plant are under investigation for cancer and arthritis. Butanolides and lucidones have shown great potential in developing anticancer agents while aporphine alkaloids have possibilities in developing anti-inflammatory agents (Cao et al., 2016).

Most of the 80-100 Lindera species worldwide are native to eastern Asia, though L. benzoin is one of three species in North America. Anti-inflammatory properties characterise these plants (Choi et al., 2013), such as the root of Lindera aggregata used in traditional Chinese medicine.  L. strychnifolia, an evergreen, is known for the root used in Kampo medicine, and has been used as a treatment for cardiac, renal and rheumatic diseases in Japan. L. aggregata is the Japanese spicebush, an evergreen. L. aggregata root is part of a Korean herbal medicine formula for depression and an alkaloid constituent has been researched for anti-arthritis potential (Wei et al., 2015). L. obtusiloba is another species from eastern Asia which has potential as a medicinal remedy due to antioxidant activity (Haque et al., 2020; Kim et al., 2016).

Habitat and cultivation

Spicebush is an understorey shrub in North America that can form thickets in rich woods and wetlands. It is usually a deciduous shrub growing to 3-4 m tall by 3 m wide. Spicebush is hardy to UK zone 5 and US zones 4-9 and can grow in full sun or in light shade. It is ideal for a shady spot and prefers a rich moist soil, enriched with leaf mould. Although it is usually  listed as a plant of acid soils, the spicebush grows very well in our Devon cottage garden soil which is rather alkaline. Spicebush varieties are often sold as ornamental shrubs since the leaves can turn spectacularly yellow in autumn The autumn colour can be seen here in the image from Missouri Botanical Garden. 

This plant can be readily pruned for leafy supplies or coppiced back to the base. For berry production a sunny position is advised, and both male and female plants will be needed. 

spice bush leaves
Yellow leaves of spice bush in autumn

Harvesting

Leaves and twigs can be used at any time though said to be best harvested when in flower for use as a tea. It is

Bark can be harvested at any time and used fresh or dried.

Berries can be harvested and dried or frozen for later use.

Sourcing spicebush

Spicebush is a North American shrub which is usually only available in ornamental forms in Europe. Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall are worth checking out as a quality source of some medicinal trees and shrubs. They may have good-sized Lindera benzoin plants at £45 available this autumn, and a flowering spicebush is shown in their photo here (mail order is available). 

Spice bush flowers
Berries from spice bush

 

Traditional use

Native Americans used the plant for many ailments, and it was used by the Cherokee and Ojibwa for flavouring food. The bark was used to make a tea as a ‘blood purifier’ for sweating, colds, rheumatism. This plant was also recognised as an indicator of fertile land by settlers in the Americas. The settlers described the plant as a substitute for allspice and used the twigs in a tea for colds, worms, gas and colic. Known also as ‘feverbush’ the bark was once widely used as a treatment for typhoid fevers and other forms of fevers. A steam bath of the twigs was used to cause perspiration in order to ease aches and pains in the body. The oil from the fruits has been used in the treatment of bruises and rheumatism.

Ways to use

Young shoots can be gathered in spring and dried for later use.

Gather leaves to make an infusion for colds and fevers.

Make a strong tea from the twigs to create a sweat.

The young bark can be chewed.

Dry and sprinkle the leaves as an insect repellent.

The twigs and bark can be distilled for an antiseptic essential oil.

Simmer the bark in water 15-20 min for an antifungal wash.

Add berries to warm honey and strain after a week, use for colds and flu.

 

Additional uses

Dry the unripe berries and grind to powder for a substitute for pepper, while the ripe red berries can be used as an alternative to allspice, the bark for cinnamon (Tucker et al., 1994).

Stems, leaves and berries can be burnt as incense.

Chewing the the twigs can help quench thirst according to Strauss (2020).

 

Other plants with similar effects

Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis), cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia)

References 

Cao Y, Xuan B, Peng B, et al. The genus Lindera: A source of structurally diverse molecules having pharmacological significance.  Phytochemistry Reviews 2016; 15: 869-906.

Choi HG, Lee HD, Kim SH, et al. Phenolic glycosides from Lindera obtusiloba and their anti-allergic inflammatory activities. Nat Prod Commun 2013; 8: 181-2.

Foster S and Duke JA. 1990. A field guide to eastern and central North American medicinal plants, The Peterson Field Guide Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Haque ME, Azam S, Balakrishnan R, et al. Therapeutic potential of Lindera obtusiloba: Focus on antioxidative and pharmacological properties. Plants (Basel) 2020; 9: 1765.

Kim JH, Lee J, Kang S, et al. Antiplatelet and antithrombotic effects of the extract of Lindera obtusiloba leaves. Biomol Ther (Seoul) 2016; 24: 659-64.

Strauss P. The big herbs. Second edition 2020: The use and abuse, natural history and identification of major tree and shrub species in the Midwest and Eastern US with stories and insights of a life married to farm and forest. Xoxox Press, 2020.

Tucker AO, Maciarello MJ, Burbage PW, et al. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin (L.) Blume Var. Benzoin, Lauraceae): A tea, spice, and medicine. Economic Botany 1994; 48: 333–36.

Wei ZF, Lv Q, Xia Y, et al. Norisoboldine, an anti-arthritis alkaloid isolated from Radix Linderae, attenuates osteoclast differentiation and inflammatory bone erosion in an aryl hydrocarbon receptor-dependent manner. Int J Biol Sci 2015; 11: 1113-26.