Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Spicebush berry time!


May/June '12 issue - The Essential Herbal Magazine

Tina Sams
Today the berries cover the branches of the small trees in the woods (early Sept),
It was a pleasant surprise to find that the Herb Society of America started a Notable Native Herb program and will feature a native each year.  Even more intriguing, they chose Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub that is the main undergrowth in our woods here on the farm.  Much like the Int'l Herb Association's Herb of the Year (Rose for 2012), I believe this native program will give us the opportunity to really focus on an herb that we might not typically give a lot of consideration. When Horseradish was featured, I learned a lot more than I expected!  And so it will be with Spicebush.

In the woods, it is some of the first color in spring as the small bright yellow flowers pop out along the stems.  For those of us in its range (varieties grow all of the eastern US, from eastern Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas eastward to the Atlantic states as far north as Maine and into Ontario), it is pretty much THE look of spring in the woods.  Driving through the countryside today, I paid attention to how it is the only thing among the bare trees, and the blossoms twinkle and glow.

Spicebush is a member of the Laurel Family (Lauraceae). Both male and female plants are required for fruiting, and it most often reproduces asexually through root sprouting.  Leaves are alternate, simple, and elliptical. They are pinnately veined and generally about 3-5 inches long with the larger leaves on the tips and smaller leaves down the stems.  The twigs and leaves, as well as the fruit, are fragrant with strong spiciness. It is the easiest way to identify this plant, by rubbing the leaves or snapping off a twig and smelling it. Most of ours are 6-8 feet tall because they get nearly full shade when the canapy fills out, but they do get to 15 feet or so with sunlight, and have a nice shape. The fruits are green, ripening to red, with a single large seed.  While the twigs can be harvested year round (and dried) for teas, etc., the leaves do not dry well and should be used when fresh.  The berries can be dried or frozen for later use.

As the summer winds down and autumn approaches, Spicebush again pleases us with bright yellow leaves decorated with the shiny red berries, although we have to race the birds for them.

There were many Native American and Early American medicinal uses for Spicebush.  Concentrated decoction of the twigs and bark can induce perspiration, so it was useful in fevers.  The berry tea was was used for respiratory issues.  Infusions of all three parts were considered useful for skin issues and irritations.

The flavor of the berry is a bit like allspice with a touch of nutmeg.  So far, I've been removing the seed and drying, then grinding the outer red part for use (as we do for the large rose hips here).  It appears that most people dry and grind the whole berry, so I might try that this year since it would be a lot less labor intensive.

A few ways to use Spicebush in the kitchen: 

Persimmon Cake
I put this recipe together after searching for a cookie recipe for some found persimmon, finally deciding a cake would be easier, given what was in the kitchen.  You might want to toss in a ripe banana or some chopped apple.  It is very versatile.  Moist, dense, and spicy... yum!  
1/2 C shortening
1/2 C white sugar
1/2 C brown sugar
1 C persimmon pulp
1 C all purpose flour
2 eggs
2 t baking powder
2 t spicebush berry (ground)
2 t finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t crushed cardamom seeds
1/2 C chopped walnuts and/or raisuns (optional)

Grease an 8" x 8" baking dish. Set oven for 350.
Cream shortening in a mixing bowl with the sugars, beating well. Add eggs and persimmon, and mix well. Add dry ingredients slowly, and the spices, and mix until well blended (I used a mixer)
Bake for about 25 minutes, or until top is firm to the touch. Cake will be a medium brown.

Spicebush Tea
Twigs:  I cut the twigs into 1 or 2" pieces and use 2 cup of twigs to 4 cups of water. 
Leaves (fresh): About the same quantities as above.
Berries: 1 cup berries in 4 cups of water.
Simmer uncovered for 20 - 25 minutes.
Sweeten with honey or a sprinkle of stevia.
Best enjoyed hot, although the leaf tea is also pleasant iced.

Quinoa Salad
Cook quinoa according to package directions to make 4 cups.
2 T olive oil
Juice of one lemon and zest from 1/2 lemon
1/2 C finely chopped onion OR sliced spring onion
1/4 C coarsely chopped dried sour cherries or cranberries
1/4 C slivered almonds
1 T chopped parsley
2 t ground spiceberry

Blend well and serve hot or cold (I prefer it hot). This will keep in the fridge for several days and makes a nutritious snack or side dish.

And just because my life is one long battle with groundhogs, I found the following recipe on-line and although I will probably never use it, reading it brings a vicious smile to my lips every time I read it.
Recipe for Groundhog Cooked with Spicebush
“This is a recipe that my Mother-in-law taught me how to cook ground hog.
Dress and cut it up. Put in pot, then bring to boil.* Break up spicewood branches, and put in pot with meat. Boil until the meat is tender. Remove; then salt and pepper; then roll in flour; put in 1/2 cup shortening, preferably bacon grease. Then put in oven and bake until it is brown.  Mrs. Ennis Ownby”
 Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1957.

Take advantage of this year of learning about Spicebush and try using it if it is in your area. 


Linda said...

I know this is an old post, but I'm hoping it gets seen and responded to anyway. I found understory shrubs growing in my woods with red oval berries and one large seed inside yesterday. There is a pleasant scent in the leaves, stem or berries when I crush them but I wouldn't describe it as spicy, more citrusy in the berries especially. Otherwise the bush looks identical to spicebush. I haven't seen it bloom in the spring though so I don't know what color the blooms are. Are there any lookalikes to spicebush?

Tina Sams said...

I don't know - it might depend on the part of the country/world you live in. In PA, there are honeysuckle berries (rounder) and autumn olive out at this time of year.

Take a good spin around Google images. It's probably spicebush, depending on your location.