If you have ever been hiking in the woods in the DC area, chances are you've walked by hundreds of spicebush shrubs. They've got small yellow flowers in the spring, then they form a nondescript green backdrop in the woods for the rest of the summer. Until September -- when their berries turn bright red.
The twigs, leaves, and berries of spicebush all have a smell reminiscent of nutmeg or allspice when crushed. Presumably, the Latin name Lindera benzoin was given as a reference to benzoin resin, which was used to make incense and perfume in Asia and Europe. It's actually more related to laurels, including the bay laurel that gives us bay leaves.
Spicebush parts don't just smell good -- you can use them as a spice. The twigs can be brewed in hot water to make tea. Berries can be used fresh or frozen, as an allspice substitute. (Steve Brill recommends against drying.) We'll often cook them up with sliced apples to make a delicious topping for pancakes. Each berry has a single seed inside, which can be ground up with the rest if you're going to use it as a spice -- that's a lot less work than trying to get the seed out of each one.
In the wild: Spicebush is one of the dominant understory shrubs in our local forest. In Rock Creek Park, we recently noticed large groves on both sides of the Valley Trail, in the section east of Boundary Bridge.
Matt keeps a little stock of spicebush seedlings to put into clients' yards. They regularly get eaten up by spicebush swallowtail caterpillars in the summer. Most bounce back from the damage -- after all, these caterpillars have been eating these bushes for millions of years. And we love supporting the butterflies!