The field guides say spicebush smells and tastes “like allspice.” I respectfully disagree. The dried berries look a little like allspice, but have an aroma closer to black pepper, while the leaves have an altogether different, slightly citrus-y scent.
This wild edible isn’t easy to spot until you’ve already learned to identify it, and to do that you’ll need to use your nose as well as your eyes. But once you do learn to ID spicebush, you’ll find it along the eastern side of Prospect Park as well as outside the city in our Northeast woodlands.
I found spicebush to be tricky to ID when I was first searching for it. I’d read about it in my field guides, it sounded yummy, and I wanted some, but…lots of woodland shrubs have leaves that are more or less an oval shape, 2 – 6 inches long, with smooth margins and pointed tips.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a 5 – 12 foot tall understory forest shrub that is native to our area. There are both male and female plants, although you’re probably only going to notice the difference in late summer and early fall when the female shrubs have berries on them.
I finally identified spicebush one September when I spotted the bright red, ripe berries. (Brooklynites blessed with a backyard should note that if you want to introduce this plant into your garden, you’ll need plants of both genders or you won’t get any berries).
I crushed one of the berries and the intensely spicy scent confirmed that I’d finally identified spicebush. Then I crushed one of the leaves and was rewarded with a very different but equally appetizing fragrance.
The next spring, because now I knew where to look, I enjoyed the clusters of yellow flowers blooming on the otherwise bare branches at a time when little else on the landscape yet showed color.
Spicebush offers three ingredients to work with in your kitchen, and each rewards you with a slightly different taste. You can use the fresh leaves and twigs of both male and female spicebush shrubs.
The fresh leaves make a gorgeous iced tea throughout the warm months of summer. They don’t dry well, and brewing the tea with hot water brings out an unpleasant bitter edge. Brewed as a cold water infusion, the flavor is light and slightly floral and citrusy.
I like to do this by making a “sun tea” with the fresh leaves. Simply crush a few leaves and place them in a glass jar along with cold or room temperature water. Cover the jar and leave it in the sun for 2 – 6 hours (a sunny window is fine). Strain out the leaves, add a little honey if desired, and chill.
Spicebush twigs make a good winter tea when there is little else to forage. Snap these into approximately inch-long pieces or smaller. Per cup, put about 2 tablespoons of the twigs in a heatproof container. Pour a cup of boiling water over the twigs. Cover the container and let steep for 10 – 15 minutes. Strain out the twigs and sweeten to taste. Note: do not boil or simmer the twigs, because that makes this beverage more bitter than aromatic. Reheat if necessary – this drink is tastiest warm.
The real prize is the berries. These are found only on the female shrubs and can be used fresh or dried.
Some people separate the pulp and skin from the seed and dry them as two different spices: the skin plus pulp is one spice, the seed another. I’ve tried this, and it is true – the seed has a hotter, peppery note and the skin and pulp are sweeter. But it is labor intensive to separate them, and honestly, they taste really good together so I rarely bother.
To use, grind fresh spicebush berries with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor. Grind dried spicebush berries in an electric or manual coffee or spice grinder.
Unlike the whole dried allspice that they are often compared to, dried spicebush berries should not be stored at room temperature. Spicebush berries have a high fatty oil content that can turn rancid. To prevent this, store them in the freezer or refrigerator. Store them whole, and grind as needed.
Spicebush berries work equally well in sweet and savory recipes. I use them in marinades, rubs and dipping sauces for vegetables, meat and poultry. But I think my favorite spicebush recipe is ice cream.
A version of the following recipe originally appeared in my first book, Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes. Warning: you will want seconds.
Spicebush Ice Cream
Makes approximately 1 quart/liter
- 2 pints half and half, OR 1 pint heavy cream plus 1 pint whole milk
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. ground spicebush berries
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)
1. Over medium-low heat, bring one up of the cream, the honey, and the salt to a simmer. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl.
2. Whisk in the remaining cup of cream, the milk, the ground spicebush, and the vanilla if using. Cover and refrigerate overnight or as long as twenty-four hours.
3. Pour the mixture into an ice cream machine and follow the machine manufacturer’s instructions to freeze.
We will definitely be finding spicebush on my next couple of foraging tours. But if you are jonesing to try some and just can’t wait until you have time to forage, you can order the dried berries online. They are sold as Appalachian Allspice.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com