Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Lindera benzoin, commonly known as spicebush, is a keynote understory species in these parts. Favoring moist soil and part shade/ part sun, it grows to be a large shrub of the laurel family, often under the protection of our prevalent tree species- black walnut, tulip poplar, hickory and ash. Spicebush are most showy in the early fall, when they are bedecked with hundreds or thousands of blood red jewel-like berries. In the spring, spicebush are one of the first flowers to appear in the woods. Their leafless twigs grow the sweetest, most delightful little yellow flowers all up and down them. The flowers are simultaneously stunningly beautiful and humbly understated, if that could be. 

Last spring, while tinkering around the yard one early evening, I was stopped in my tracks by a subtle whiff of what was possibly the best perfume smell I had ever caught wind of. Being a very scent-oriented person, I followed my nose here and there, and within a few minutes I found myself face to flower with a blooming spicebush. The delicate but powerful smell was absolutely perfect. A breath of spring. Palpable freshness and fertility. I hesitate to compare it to anything, but for the sake of this imperfect discourse, I will liken it to a flowery, lemon-like smell, with something almost tangy. 

The next day, I excitedly relayed my experience to my next door neighbor, and we hurried to the nearest spicebush and inhaled. Nothing. We went from bush to bush, sniffing in anticipation. Still nothing. The perfume was gone, and I was left wondering if I had imagined it altogether. 

Within the week or two, a Cherokee friend of mine showed up one afternoon with a buddy to harvest some sochan and bloodroot, two other very abundant plants in these parts. They showed up with lye corn cakes in tow, and came in for tea before heading out to forage. We ended up harvesting a few twigs of flowering spicebush, and the friend showed me how to prepare spicebush tea in a traditional Cherokee way. The little twigs, early in the spring are taken and simmered for 15 or so minutes. The tea is drunk for cold or fever.

From the Iroquois tradition, spicebush is called Duhen Yuks, which might mean something like "helps the man get somewhat excited." It is combined with euonymous and used for gonorrea and syphilis; one root was taken and boiled with 4 quarts of water- boiled down to 1/2 quart of tea. It is also used for colds. A tea combined with jewelweed was placed on the breast for "breast injuries." For cold sweats, colds and measles, the leaves are boiled to a tea. This information was from a text of Iroquois traditional herbal medicine shared with me by dear friend Diana Osborne.

The berries of the spicebush can be used as a spice, similar to allspice. I have used it as a seasoning in apple pie, a mystery ingredient in pesto, and combined in a homemade mead with pears. a little goes a long way. You don't need more than a few berries in a whole pie. 

This evening I was walking along the Laurel River. I turned a bend and was hit again by a subtle but definite perfume. I was distracted by my thoughts and didn't give it my attention right away. When I caught my second whiff, I noticed that I was walking through a little spicebush grove. I stepped to the nearest one and placed my nose directly on a tiny flower. As I breathed in the best smell ever, I noticed a small, pollen- covered fly creeping into another flower, making itself drunk with spicebush perfume. I closed my eyes and breathed as deeply as I could over and over. Clean and timeless. Fresh linens hanging on a precious spring afternoon deep in the mountains. Hard working man and woman sitting down in the evening. Deep and lonely. Light and lovely. A keepsake. The definition of ephemeral. 


Laura Carter said...

I think I know what amazing fragrance you write of here. I was down by the French Broad River a couple weekends ago on the Biltmore estate and it had a very citrus note that I found completely delightful. I wondered if it was spicebush, but wasn't certain and i thought of you and knew you'd help me figure it out.

Eduard Thijs said...

Sorry ladies, I have never smelled the spice bush (would love to), can imagine it makes you feel that spring is on its way. I am sure we could learn a lot from the Cherokees.

Girl In An Apron said...

this is really beautiful dane!

Unknown said...

Dana - this is so beautiful. Makes me excited for when you write a book! Thank you for this!