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spicebush berries

Spicebush Berries, aka Lindera Benzoin

I just got back from a recon hike, checking on the wineberries (not quite ready), wood nettles (past their prime), and bee balm (perfect) and I was happy to discover a new stand of spicebush, aka Lindera benzoin, to add to my mental map. I’ve come to depend on spicebush berries in so many recipes. I’d feel culinarily lost if I didn’t know I had dried spicebush berries in the freezer.

Spicebush is a medium-sized shrub, native to most of eastern North America. Some astute gardeners use it as an ornamental. They appreciate its delicate, yellow spring flowers (which open when the skunk cabbage starts coming up) and bright yellow fall foliage. But very few realize that the pretty red fruit is an outstanding spice that brightens up both sweet and savory dishes.

In nature, spicebush is an understory plant. It grows best in part shade, and you’ll find it under beeches, oaks, and maples. It’s an excellent, low maintenance plant for a permaculture garden, but if you’re going to plant it, we should probably talk about sex. Like holly, spicebush is a dioecious shrub, which means male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Both produce attractive flowers and fall foliage, but only the females have edible berries. If fruit is your goal (and if you’re reading this, it probably is), buy your shrubs in fall, when berries will be evident and you can tell who is who. You’ll need only one male for pollination (it can pollinate several females), but stock up on the lady plants.

How to Use Spicebush

Spicebush tea can be made from fresh or dried leaves and twigs. It has a mild, chai flavor that is pleasant hot or iced. Notice I said pleasant. That’s my polite way of saying meh. It’s perfectly nice, but nothing to write home about.

Spicebush berries, on the other hand, will knock your frickin’ socks off. I cannot praise the flavor highly enough. I’ve heard people describe it as tasting like a mix of allspice and pepper, but to me, the flavor defies description. It’s spicy, complex, dark, has a little heat, and there’s something floral in there, too. Try it for yourself and see.

Pick the berries as soon as they turn red. The exact dates will vary with your location, but they generally ripen in early fall, and stay on the plant for several months. As long as the fruit is red, it’s good to harvest.

Fresh berries can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week but I prefer to use mine dried. This does two things: concentrates the flavor and prolongs their shelf life. I dehydrate the fruit, then keep it in the freezer. I store the berries whole until I’m ready to use them.

Spicebush berries are wonderful with apples and pears in cobblers and pies; I rarely use cinnamon and nutmeg any more. A spicebush dry rub is great with chicken or pork. Spicebush dram is a superior liqueur. Spicebush ice cream is superb on its own and even better with pumpkin pie. Ground spicebush berries and sugar make the perfect rim for a frozen persimmon margarita. And spicebush snickerdoodle cookies are deliciously hard to describe.

If you can’t forage for spicebush berries near you, you can order it online from Integration Acres. They call it Appalachian Allspice, and once you taste it, you’re going to want more!

12 comments

  1. Keith says:

    I love the taste of spicebush twigs in ice cream. To me, though, the flavor of the berries are just ok- oily, waxy flavor of nutmeg, pepper, cardamom and bay leaves. Not a bad flavor, just not the best. But I take some twigs, grind in the coffee grinder and add to warm ice cream base. Strain out the twigs and you are left with the best tasting ice cream on the planet- a combination of citrus, nutmeg and cinnamon. The flavor is great and something you can’t buy at any store. Worth a trip into the woods.

    • Ellen says:

      Spicebush berries are one of my favorite flavors, but I know taste is highly subjective. A friend of mine makes tea from spice bush leaves. She loves it, but I find it far too mild to be interesting. I’m excited to hear how you use the twigs in ice cream; I’ll definitely try it. I love that it can be harvested all year round. Would you share how long you let the ground twigs sit in the ice cream base? Thanks!

      • Keith says:

        https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/01/dining/the-master-ice-cream-recipe.html

        Yeah, I’ve tried the leaves in tea and also thought it was too mild I felt inspired today so I went to the woods and picked some spicebush twigs. I took them home, rinsed and tossed into the Vitamix. When they were blended, I put them in an electric coffee grinder. Both the Vitamix and the coffee grinder have no problem grinding the twigs. The reason I start with the blender is just to get the twigs small enough to easily fit into my grinder. I then ground the twigs into a powder. I use the ice cream base listed above. Once the base has thickened and is off the heat, I added maybe 2 large teaspoons of the spicebush powder and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Because the twigs are ground, the flavor transfers quickly. The reason to leave in for the 10 minutes is to get the ground twig powder to swell up enough to strain out when you put through a strainer. Then just follow the recipe- strain, cool overnight and churn. The base will taste like the finished ice cream. If you want more flavor, just add more powder before straining. I also add about a teaspoon of vanilla to the mix. We sometimes add the same powder to hot chocolate. Again, heat and then strain out the powder or it can get gritty. But the flavor is great- warm, spicy and unique. I think the same powder would also work really well in a spice cake recipe. Hope that helps!

        • Ellen says:

          Keith!, I love the sound of this! I won’t be back east until April, so I’ll have to wait to try your recipe, but you can rest assured I will, because it sounds fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. polly says:

    1/29/2018 I happened upon a few red berries at Pruyn Sanctuary in Westchester County. There were plenty of spice bush shrubs in the swamp area there, but I could not spot any of the berries on a shrub. Only on the ground, only singly, and far apart from one another. The berries had no flaws, so I doubt a bird carried them. What do you think?

    • Ellen says:

      I’ve never seen that! Where I forage in NE PA the berries have started to dry on the shrubs by mid-October. I’m surprised you found red berries this late. In PA, there’s no fruit left at all, fresh or dried. The only red berries I see out there are barberries and the occasional rose hip.

  3. Peggy O'Neill says:

    If you dry spicebush berries and grind them for spice, do you remove the seeds before dehydrating or is the seed(s) ground with the berry for spice?

    • Ellen says:

      Peggy, I dry the entire berry and grind it all up for a spice. I’ve heard some people say that they separate the two parts; that the flavor of the flesh resembles that of allspice and that of the seed resembles that of black pepper. Personally, I love the flavor of both parts together, so that’s what I do.

    • Ellen says:

      I dry them in a dehydrator at 95F until they’re black and completely dry. How long that takes will depend on the ambient humidity where you live. It takes a lot longer for me when I dry them in PA than when I dry them in NM! After drying, I keep them in the freezer, whole, then grind just before using.

  4. Brad says:

    I found a patch of Spice Bushes in the forest near me and transplanted about 20 of them to my yard this week, they are easy to spot now. They are all 3-6 feet tall. I hope I have some Females Some of the smaller ones I combined to make a larger bush. I added some potting soil to the holes I dug to help them with the transplant. I am in Western Pa.

    • Ellen says:

      Hi Brad, You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway! Next time, don’t add potting soil to the plants’ holes. If the composition of your native soil is very different from that of the potting soil (and in PA it probably is!), the roots of your transplants will linger in the potting soil where life is easy, rather than expanding out into the native soil, which may be rocky or clay. This often leads to roots circling the tree, rather than establishing a wide, anchoring root ball. I won’t say anything about digging up 20 shrubs from the forest. I’ll just assume you had permission!

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