Does your yard include a bit of shade, perhaps at the edge of a stand of taller trees, with soil that remains relatively moist — even wet — for most of the year? Or maybe your yard includes a low spot, where rainwater pools during prolonged downpours — another spot ideally suited for this native woodland shrub, which can be found in every state east of the Mississippi River, naturally occurring near streams, swamps or moist forest slopes.
When the berries on the female plants are ripe, they turn a deep scarlet, which contrasts beautifully with the bush’s deep green leaves. In my yard, the berries rarely last more than a month; the local birds must find them especially tasty.
The shrub gets its name from the sweet-spicy fragrance of its leaves, which also serves to deter browsing by deer. Some people make a tea from the leaves and twigs, and the dried, powdered fruits can be used as a nutmeg substitute.
Our local Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies use the shrub as a primary food source for their caterpillars. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars will also dine on the leaves, as will the big, beautiful Promethea Silkmoth.
I realized immediately that this favorite native understory shrub would do well on our floodplain, so we planted several. The birds took it from there. Now we have spicebushes growing in places that I didn’t think would be good habitat. The birds “planted” them all over my cool, shady north-facing slope, even at the top of the hill, where the soil gets quite dry during most summers. But the shrubs have had no trouble adapting to those growing conditions.
Thus, I conclude that this shrub can handle a wider range of growing conditions than you might expect, based on where they naturally occur. I think the key is shade from hot afternoon sun. If you ensure that this shrub is always sheltered from the worst of our summer heat, you will be rewarded with glossy-leaved shrubs in summer adorned by bright red berries (until the birds find them), followed by warm golden yellow autumn color that lingers until the first hard freeze.
You will find a fine array of healthy spicebush plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. Because you can’t tell the sex of a seedling that hasn’t yet bloomed, I recommend that you buy at least three of these wonderful native shrubs, increasing the likelihood that you get at least one male and one female plant. After they are established in your landscape and the female shrubs begin producing bright red berries, your local birds will “plant” a few more for you.