The question comes up every September in my garden. The meter-reader, oil delivery driver and countless guests have asked: “What’s that bright yellow shrub over there by the wall… The one covered with birds and red berries?” When I ask, “Have you heard of Lindera benzoin, North American spicebush?”, the answer is invariably ‘no’. And no matter how many times I make the introduction, it’s always surprising to me that this gorgeous shrub isn’t more widely known and used in the landscape. Spicebush’s season-spanning, informal beauty makes her the perfect choice for naturalizing along woodland boundaries and in countless other transitional situations. But as you can see from the photo above, this native plant also works beautifully in a mixed-border; with other trees, shrubs, bulbs and perennials.
The show begins in first weeks of April, when the spicebush’s lightly-fragrant, lemon-yellow blossoms begin to open on the dreariest of days. These early flowers are an important source of nectar to pollinating insects —including native and honey bees—and a welcome sight to my winter-weary eyes. The specimen pictured above — in front of the stone wall surrounding the Secret Garden— has developed a round, mounded shape in full sun (I prune very lightly after the early spring blossoms fade). Lindera benzoin will also tolerate light shade, and the groupings here at the edge of the native forest have developed a more open, but graceful habit. After the early flowers fade, attractive, blue-green foliage (the leaves have a delightfully spicy, masculine fragrance when crushed, and can be used to make tea, herbal sachets or potpourri) makes a fine backdrop for other players in front of the perennial border.
As pretty and uplifting as this shrub is when blossoming in April, come September, spicebush really turns things up a notch in the garden when its foliage shifts from cool green to brilliant, lemon-gold. The female plants (this species is dioecious and a male must be planted nearby for the female to produce fruit), with their bright red berries (edible/substitute for allspice), are especially fetching in autumn; attracting birds from the nearby forest by the dozen. Combinations with other showy, autumn shrubs and trees —such as bold red viburnum (particluarly V.bodnatense and V. trilobum), dogwood, witch hazel, and red vein enkianthus— are always gorgeous. And rich purple or deep-blue blossoms —including monkshood (Aconitum) and asters in autumn, and glory-of-the-snow (Chinodoxa), crocus and grape hyacinth (Muscari) in spring— make lovely, perennial and bulb pairings with spicebush on either end of the growing season as well. Conifers, particularly deep green hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and blue spruce cultivars (Picea pungens) also provide a striking contrast to luminous Lindera benzoin, both in texture and color. And keep in mind the design possibilities of deep violet foliage when choosing a spot for spicebush. Dark, burgundy shrubs, including Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’, P. opufolius ’Summer Wine’ and Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’, really bring out the golden hues in Lindera benzoin; as do perennials like purple fountain grass (Pennisetum rubrum) and Sedum ‘Matrona’ or S. ‘Purple Emperor’. In a shadier situation, try spicebush in combination with the purple foliage of Heuchera cultiavars (like ‘Plum Pudding’ and ‘Palace Purple’) or perhaps Actaea racemosa (aka Cimicifuga racemosa ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ or ‘Brunette’).
Hardy in zones 4-9, Lindera benzoin is a native of N. America from the north into Canada and on south to Florida; into midwestern Michigan and Kansas, and southwest to moderate climate zones of Texas. As a landscaping plant, spicebush is relatively trouble-free in the garden or naturalized settings; forming a mound-shaped shrub (6-12′ high and wide) when planted in a sunny location. In the shade the shrub tends to form a more open shape (a bit like Amelanchier); absolutely lovely, though subtle, when in bloom. Lindera benzoin prefers even soil-moisture (dry conditions make for a scruffy looking specimen) with cooling mulch about the root-zone (helpful to preserve even soil temperature and moisture)
Perhaps you’re already acquainted with lovely Lindera. If so, remember to pass on the good word. Mid to late fall is a great time to add shrubs to the landscape (see related post here). This native plant is an important part of our natural, North American habitat, and a significant source of food for insects (bees and butterfly larvae) and birds. But it seems to me that the spring blossoms, red fruit and glorious, golden, autumn color of Lindera benzoin provide all the promotional material any plant could ever need…