Posts Tagged Spicebush
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.
With a little planning and minimal effort, one of the fastest ways to enhance your home landscape is through the addition of shrubs. Most folks in the southeastern Piedmont are in shrub ruts, thanks to the overuse of the same few bushes by landscapers of new subdivisions and commercial buildings. A few of those overused shrubs — like Wax Myrtle — are native plants, and so provide food and shelter for wildlife without the invasive tendencies that many non-natives exhibit. But boxwoods, grape hollies (Mahonias), and evergreen azaleas are not native. And the invasive tendencies of Mahonias in our native wetlands is an increasing concern to ecologists.
Today I encourage you to think beyond standardized Piedmont shrubbery. It’s time to consider adding some of our many gorgeous native shrubs to your home landscape. There’s a native shrub for any growing conditions you may have. Some can attain the size of small trees, such as a mature Bladdernut. But others remain just a few feet tall without the need for pruning, including some deciduous azalea and blueberry species.
The advice I offered in my previous post about tree planting applies equally to shrubs. Understand the site where you want to add your shrubs. Is it at the top of a sunny hill? Shaded by larger trees or buildings? In a low spot where rainwater collects? Clay soil? Sandy loam?
When you know the answers to those questions, if the area in question is not already a mulched bed, take the time to create a bed. Break up the soil, work in compost or other organic material to create a moist, loamy planting site. When you add the shrubs, be sure to gently stretch out any roots that might be winding around the interior of the pot. Be sure the level of the dirt in your bed matches where the dirt in the pot touched the base of the stem.
Water in your new addition, then mulch the bed with an inch or two of organic mulch — leaves, wood chips, bark — any of those will do nicely. As with new trees, your new shrubs will need a bit of pampering for their first year of growth. If your area goes into drought, water your newbies. Don’t worry about fertilizer. Native shrubs in a well-prepared planting site don’t need it and don’t really want it.
If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ve read about a number of native shrub options worthy of any Piedmont landscape. Here are a few for your consideration.
For Colorful Drama: Deciduous Azaleas
The southeastern US is home to spectacular native deciduous azaleas, and I’ve described all the ones I grow in this blog. If you search on deciduous azalea, you’ll find the relevant entries. The one here is probably mostly Rhododendron austrinum, but it was listed as a hybrid in the catalog. Talk about making an impact in the spring landscape! Not only are its numerous flowers impossible to miss, their fragrance is equally impressive, and utterly heavenly. The spring-blooming deciduous azaleas mostly do so before their leaves emerge, thereby increasing their visual impact. The summer bloomers, like Plumleaf Azalea, bloom after leaves appear, but the visual impact still stops visitors in their tracks.
Not all deciduous azaleas are fragrant, colors range from pure white to pale yellow to deep gold to rich pinks, oranges, and deep crimsons. Sizes and site requirements vary too. Truly, there is a native azalea ideally suited for almost any growing condition.
Because they drop their leaves in fall (after a spectacular fall leaf color display), deer mostly ignore these shrubs in the landscape. Every once in a while, one will bite off a flower bud in winter or grab a mouthful of summer leaves as it walks past, but deer don’t seem to want to devour this shrub, as they will with Virginia Sweetspire, for example. The deciduous azalea native to my area is Pinxterbloom Azalea (see top photo). I have a ten-foot-tall-and-wide specimen growing on the slope to my floodplain that has always been completely unprotected. The deer eat nearby plants, but ignore the giant Pinxterbloom Azalea.
In my yard, even small, newly planted deciduous azaleas usually begin blooming within the first three years, most sooner than that. Try them; you will not be disappointed.
For Four-Season Interest: Hydrangeas
If you’ve got dry shade, Oakleaf Hydrangea is for you. Yes, you’ll need to water it for the first year during dry spells until it’s settled in, but that’s about it. Late spring clusters of white flowers eventually dry on the shrub, making lovely additions to dried flower arrangements. Leaves are bright green in summer and turn scarlet in autumn, remaining on the stems well into late fall. Winter bark is a deep rich brown that contrasts beautifully with snow. In neighborhoods plagued by deer, the leaves of these shrubs will be eaten. In my yard, I find that if I spray the leaves with one of the repellant mixtures you can buy at any landscape supply store, the deer don’t touch them. In my yard, if I spray in early spring when the leaves are just emerging and again in autumn, I deter most of the nibbling. These are the times when the deer are hungriest in my area. The spray I apply smells horrible (garlic and pepper, I think), but when it dries, I can’t smell it — but the deer still can.
For Lingering Berries: Deciduous Hollies
That photo was taken in late winter. The bright red berries of our native deciduous hollies are the food of last resort with my local birds. Eventually, usually at the tail end of a cold winter, a flock of Cedar Waxwings will descend on these shrubs that I’ve added to my floodplain and strip them clean. I love these shrubs because the persistent crimson berries really pop in a winter landscape, especially because the branches drop their leaves well before that season. Ilex decidua and I. verticillata have been favorites of horticulturalists for a while. Many spectacular cultivars are available reaching various sizes. They’re native to floodplains, but happily tolerate higher ground in a well-prepared bed.
Note that all hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers develop on separate plants. Females produce the lovely berries, as long as a male of the same species is close by. I usually group two or three females where I want them to be seen, and then tuck in a male plant nearby but more in the background — close enough to provide cross pollination, but far enough away to prevent its lack of berries from detracting from the visual impact of these shrubs in the winter landscape.
The List of Options is Long and Varied
This post is growing lengthy, so I’m going to close with a few more suggestions and links to where I’ve described these shrubs before.
- Spicebush — Lindera benzoin
- Virginia Sweetspire — Itea virginica
- Viburnums — Mapleleaf, Arrowwood, and Haws, to name a few
- Beautyberry — Callicarpa americana
- Bladdernut — Staphylea trifolia
October fast approaches. Now is the optimal time to plant native trees and shrubs. Almost every local nursery has a sale this time of year, and so do most public gardens, including the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC. Members-only night is this Friday. If you live in this area, I hope I’ll see you there!
I’m seeing a variety of reds in my landscape these days, most of it not attributable to leaf color — that will come later. Red flowers and fruits — and related colors in that family — are visible in nearly every corner of my yard. I think of them as stop signals; they alert me to slow down and linger with the lovelies in my landscape before all that beauty fades.
Ripening seeds are also sporting red colors, signaling wildlife that fruits are ready for consumption.
Vermillion spires of Cardinal Flowers set fire to shady spots on my floodplain and random, self-sowed corners of perennial beds.
Magenta heads of a cluster of late-blooming Joe Pye Weed glow in a spotlight beam of sun that managed to pierce the dense canopy.
Green frogs float on my green pond, their bulging eyes watching summer’s waning as they seek unwary winged meals.
In this year of few butterflies, Spicebush Swallowtails are the most common large butterfly in my landscape, possibly due to the abundance of native spicebushes tucked under the towering canopy trees.
An occasional Eastern Tiger Swallowtail floats through the humid late-summer heat, unable to resist the potent perfume of the Chinese Abelia bushes dotting the sunnier parts of my landscape.
The native Umbrella Magnolia that thrives beside the creek produced quite a few seed cones this year. Even tucked into deep shade, the ripe cones stop my forward progress, demanding admiration.
Native to the Sandhills region of NC, my Scarlet Wild Basil continues to produce abundant orange-red blossoms, drawing daily visits from hummingbirds, and admiring questions from visitors.
Like hummingbirds, Spicebush Swallowtails often hover as they feed, blurring my photographs as they rush to drink all they can before summer’s flowers disappear.
As soon as they are fully ripe, the reddened berries on native Mapleleaf Viburnum are devoured by wildlife.
Slowly and methodically, the Praying Mantises in my landscape grow fat on the insect bounty attracted to summer’s blooms. This one hunted from a large lantana beside my front door for three days, then moved on to new territory.
Everywhere I look, Nature’s signals are clear. Animals fatten, seeds ripen, blooms explode in late-summer splendor. All feel the changing angle of the sun as it makes its daily trek across the sky. Soon, too soon, cold air will descend from the North, browning flora, scattering fauna.
But every gardener knows that winter sleeps are essential rhythms in Nature’s dance. The pauses make the crescendos that much more powerful.
On behalf of winter-weary gardeners everywhere, I bid you welcome! Spring — you are here, right? It is, of course, the day of the vernal equinox, that astronomical milestone that marks your onset. I ask, because, well, you seem to be a bit more capricious than usual this year.
Yes, the plants in my yard are showing definite signs of moving toward a new growing season, as evidenced by the beautiful native wildflowers in the above photo, blooming yesterday in my yard. They are just beginning to reach peak bloom; the ones in my north garden only yesterday peeked above ground. By last year’s vernal equinox, these flowers were nearly done.
Likewise, my beautiful Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ was well past peak bloom by last year’s equinox. This year, flower buds are just now swelling, as you can see here:
The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) are reaching peak bloom just in time for your arrival. Last year, they maxed out two weeks earlier. I love the tiny specks of bright yellow that adorn every branch.
One non-native early bloomer — my large Winterhazel — is about a week and a half behind last year’s peak blooming moment. The photo here was taken yesterday, and you can see that the flower clusters are just now pushing out their pendant strings of sunny bells.
My other big non-native bloomers — the loropetalum shrubs — seem to be more attuned to daylight changes than temperature. Flower buds are brimming with magenta color; a few are flaunting their bright strappy petals. But I’m guessing that the full spring display will occur just about the same time it did the previous two years.
That’s all well and good, Spring. A little variation in bloom time among the ornamentals on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont is entirely to be expected. That variability is actually part of what keeps gardening exciting; I never know when and what each season will bring.
On the other hand, your capriciousness is also a source of frustration. You see, I had a feeling you were going to take your time coming this year. So I started my spring greens in the greenhouse later than last year, planning to transplant them into their permanent beds about now. I expected later frosts, maybe even a light freeze, but because I cover the transplants in protective garden fabric, I figured they would remain unharmed.
But, Spring, you have turned my planting schedule upside down with this predicted ten-day bout of well-below-normal temperatures that includes a very hard freeze tomorrow night. The weather seers are calling for a low of 26 degrees Fahrenheit at the local airport. Here in the boonies, that will likely mean a low hovering in the mid-teens.
I can’t put tender transplants into the ground when you are bringing winter temperatures to my garden. That would be plant murder! Meanwhile, right on schedule, my onion starts arrived in the mail two days ago. Somehow, I must persuade them to be patient, because I can’t plant them yet either.
Spring, it’s getting crowded in the greenhouse. The greens are itching for permanent digs. My pots of ornamental plants that overwinter in the greenhouse are all putting out new growth, gaining size and enthusiasm for your arrival daily.
I know I can’t stop your games, Spring, so I’ll do my best to convince the greens to be patient a few days. I think I know what you’re up to. After lingering early and long last year, you don’t want to party here at all. I think you’re planning to pound us with winter weather until April arrives, and then depart almost immediately, letting summer’s temperatures sear us before the canopy trees are even properly leafed out. The models of the weather forecasters seem to agree. They are calling for above-normal temperatures for most of the US during the month of April, which is why I’m going to sow tomato and pepper seeds in the germination chamber in my greenhouse later today.
I love you, Spring, really, I do. But, frankly, your whimsy is one of the reasons my hair is as white as the new snow covering Boston — again — this week.
No lingering autumn for us this year, folks. An unfortunate intersection of a late hurricane and a strong arctic cold front is about to blast the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I live, strong sustained winds will rip autumn color from the trees and whirl it away to parts unknown. Clouds will own the skies until next Wednesday, although not much rain is predicted to fall. And our electricity may blink, sputter, and perhaps even vanish for some time. But compared to what is forecast for the northeastern states, we are fortunate. My prayers are with the folks to my north. They are in for a very rough ride.
Knowing what was coming, I took advantage of the last sunny day to capture a few images of my yard. By the end of next week, it may well be winter bare. The Spicebush above (Lindera benzoin) is glowing on the floodplain beneath a canopy of already-bare ashes. The golden color is impossible to miss from our back deck.
In the front flowerbed, Pineapple Sage plants are busy pushing out as many scarlet blooms as they can before the first frost shuts them down for the season. Lethargic carpenter bees drowse on blooms on cool mornings, weighing down the flowers as they wait for the morning sun’s first kiss.
Also up front, the Southern Magnolia is playing hostess to a wide range of birds and squirrels as crimson fruits dangle enticingly from her many cones. The woodpeckers are especially boisterous, but any day now, I expect migrating flocks of robins to stage a takeover. They always do.
Walking along the creek that borders our property, I was delighted to discover the bright red fruits of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit lying among fallen leaves. I picked some of the fruits and spread them in other parts of the yard where I think these lovely wetland plants should thrive.
Looking up at the brilliant azure sky, I noticed reddening leaves high atop a large Sweet Gum tree, so I took a photo. It was only when I viewed it on the computer that I noticed the branches were weighed down by still-ripening seed balls. When they turn brown and crack open, zillions of little seeds will be released. Sometimes on quiet days, I can hear them hitting dry leaves on the ground, like a gentle rain. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings will appear when the fruits are ripe. They make quite a racket as they dangle from branches devouring seeds.
I’ll be sad to see all this autumn beauty scoured away by relentless storm winds. I really enjoyed the way it lingered last year well into November. But I didn’t enjoy the absurdly warm winter and early spring that failed to produce enough cold to kill problem insects and diseases.
And a bare-branched winter cold sky holds its own kind of beauty. I will welcome the short days and weak sun, knowing the important work that winter does for my garden.
Autumn 2012, we barely knew you. But it was beautiful while it lasted. Farewell.
In the last two weeks, a new species of frog has been hanging out on the edge of our little front yard water feature. Yesterday, two were sitting on opposite sides of the pond. Both are about three inches long, and this zoomed-in photo I took makes me think they are Northern Cricket Frogs.
This species is common in my wetland, but I’ve never seen them sitting on the edge of my little front pond before this year. I think perhaps they were born in the pond and recently emerged. They’re probably waiting for a rain event to disperse to less exposed areas. I was surprised by the lumpy texture on such petite amphibians.
A couple of new butterfly species have flitted through in the last couple of weeks. They didn’t stay long in one place, so my pictures are not optimal. But I think I have identified them correctly.
I almost walked into this Monarch butterfly as it was sipping from my row of lantanas. Of course, it flew away before I could take its picture. It then briefly landed on the Chinese Abelia, which is where I managed to snap a very quick shot before it dashed off. I haven’t seen one since then. My Swamp Milkweed didn’t fare well this year. The July heat wave and drought made it surrender without blooming. I’m hoping to add at least one more species of milkweed to another area — a species that’s more heat- and drought-tolerant.
Another brief visitor to the vegetable garden was this battered specimen:
A few of this species have visited my yard off and on throughout the summer. This one stopped to sip from a bean flower just long enough for me to snap its photo. I think it’s a Great Spangled Fritillary, but I confess the fritillaries look very much alike to me. I’m mostly basing my guess on my location.
The most interesting recent faunal encounter was a love story, well, perhaps more of a lust story. I spotted a male Writing Spider dancing at the edge of a female’s web. I saw him there two days in a row before he vanished. My research tells me that if he successfully courted the female, he either died soon after or was devoured by his lover.
The plants have been busy too. Most are finalizing fruit production. The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) set an unusually large number of gorgeous red berries this year. I think the fruit-loving birds will be pleased when they notice, if they haven’t already.
As is always the case, the branches of my Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) are adorned by zillions of the large “two-winged” fruits from which its common name arises. When they are fully ripe, they turn brown, and soon after, squirrels devour every fruit.
Flowers still abound also. I’ve come to expect Jewelweed’s (Impatiens capensis) arrival in late summer/early fall. Sure enough, it’s popping up in abundance right on schedule. Especially dense thickets line our side of the creek. In deep drought years, the water-rich stems of this wildflower are irresistible to thirsty deer. This year, we either have fewer deer, or they’re not as thirsty, because the Jewelweed is blooming enthusiastically from one end of the floodplain to the other.
One recent bout of flowering was a surprise. My two white-blooming Florida Anise-trees (Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’) reside beneath dense shade that protects them from western and southern sunshine. I think that location, combined with off-and-on measurable rainfall for most of August, triggered a second round of blooming in these evergreen shrubs. Interestingly, I planted one of their red-blooming cousins (Halley’s Comet) in the same location, but it did not rebloom.
Sometimes when you see a second round of blooms from a shrub in the fall, its spring blooms are less impressive, because the plant spent much of its energy on autumn flowers. It will be interesting to observe how many flowers my albas produce next spring. For now, we are enjoying the unexpected bonus of glowing white star-like flowers against deep green leaves.
As I observe my landscape transitioning from summer to fall, my prayers go out to the folks enduring a visit from what was Hurricane Isaac until quite recently. Hurricane Fran was the beast folks in my region still talk about; forests still show clear signs of the damage caused by her winds and water. Mother Nature is indeed capricious, simultaneously bestowing unexpected flowers and unforeseen chaos in different parts of our country.
Here’s hoping Isaac is the last hurricane to make landfall in the United States this year.
When I wrote about Sweet Bay here, I mentioned that it is one of three so-called bay species native to southeastern coastal plains. Redbay (Persea borbonia) is another of those bay species. Like Sweet Bay, Redbay’s leaves are evergreen and it is a usually a smaller tree (20-30 feet), although it can grow taller. Also like Sweet Bay, the leaves of this member of the laurel family are pleasantly fragrant — actually more than those of Sweet Bay. It was consequently used as a bay leaf herb substitute by European settlers of the region.
Unlike Sweet Bay, the flowers of Redbay are relatively inconspicuous. Its fruits are purple berry-like drupes that many native birds find tasty. The birds, of course, eat many kinds of berries, but there’s a lovely butterfly whose larvae rely nearly exclusively on this tree: the Palamedes Swallowtail. Its caterpillars may also dine a bit on sassafras (Sassafras albidum), another member of the laurel family, but this small tree is much less abundant on the coastal plain than Redbay. The Palamedes Swallowtail is occasionally seen further inland, but Redbays are vastly more common on the coastal plain, so that’s where it tends to stay.
These two laurel-family-dependent butterflies are some of our larger, more dramatic summer garden visitors, and I fear their days may be numbered, because their larval food source is imperiled. An alien insect is marching up the southeastern coast of the United States, leaving dead stands of Redbay in its wake: the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle. This alien insect carries a deadly fungus that kills infected Redbays usually within a month of infection. The fungus invades the trees when female Redbay Ambrosia Beetles bore into stems to lay their eggs. As they chew, their infected mouth parts introduce the fungus. One month later, the tree dies. One month!
Last week, the NC Forest Service released a news bulletin warning that this beetle has now reached the southeastern-most counties of North Carolina. Scientists have not found any weapons against this invader. They expect the beetle to continue its northward march until it runs out of Redbays.
After that, they can only guess what may happen. One possible scenario is that the beetle may move to other laurel family species — sassafras and spicebush. This might well spell doom for the Spicebush Swallowtail if its larval food source is killed by the invading beetle and its fungus.
And, more important to Florida orchard growers, they fear it may jump to another member of the Persea genus — avocado. The USDA Forest Service has a big section on their Web site that describes all the issues relating to this invading insect and its killer fungus hitchhiker. Read all about it here.
One strategy suggested to preserve mature Redbays is to plant them outside their native range. The southeastern Piedmont has proven to be an excellent home for this species. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr notes that this native of coastal swamps is actually quite adaptable to drier upland soils, and in his opinion, the trees often look healthier than wild ones growing on the coastal plain.
My tree is about 25 feet tall, and it leans a bit, never having fully straightened after an intense, prolonged ice storm — but that can happen to any evergreen species. Mine has remained reliably evergreen even during cold winters, and our severe droughts have not hurt it. It provides a nice bit of green in my winter landscape, as well as shelter and food for birds.
After reading about the impending obliteration of coastal Redbays, I’ve decided to plant two more trees near the one I’ve already got. I am hoping that perhaps by growing three, they might have a better chance of perpetuating themselves in the landscape over the long haul. And I’m hoping that their isolation in the middle of a Piedmont forest with no other Redbays around will prevent the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle from finding them.
Perhaps if more Piedmont gardeners added this lovely, durable evergreen to their home landscapes, Redbays would have a better chance of surviving this invader and its killer fungus. I’ve decided it’s worth a try. Perhaps you might consider joining me?
You won’t find Redbays for sale in your average nursery. I’ve ordered mine from my favorite mail-order supplier of native species.
When choosing plants for the landscape, most folks understandably focus on a plant’s appearance. I do that too. However, I also use my nose. Of course, I like flowers that smell good, but I love leaves that smell good too, especially spicy leaves.
A number of our native plant species have spicy fragrances, probably because the chemicals responsible also repel predators by making the leaves taste less appealing. One example is an understory shrub common to moist forests of the piedmont — Lindera benzoin, or Spicebush.
This shrub isn’t particularly showy, although small yellow flowers that open before the leaves do brighten an early spring landscape if a few plants are grouped together. And their warm gold leaves light up the understory every autumn. The species is dioecious, which means male and female flowers are found on separate plants; the female plants produce bright red berries beloved by the feathered crowd.
I introduced this shrub to my floodplain for its spicy leaves. I’ve read that you can make a tasty tea from them, but I’ve never tried. I planted these bushes so that I can walk by during the growing season, grab and crush a leaf, and inhale its sweet-spicy goodness. I also added this species because it’s a key food plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. These lovely butterflies have definitely increased their visits to my summer flowers since I added the food plant their caterpillar stage requires.
Details about this shrub are readily available on the Web. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s site is always a good one to visit for information on natives. You can read what they say about Spicebush here.
I count adding this native beauty a win on multiple levels: early spring flowers, berries for birds, spicy goodness for me, and more butterflies to add beauty and movement to my landscape.
Here’s a photo that Wonder Spouse took of a Spicebush Swallowtail visiting one of our Swamp Milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) — another native I’m crazy about and will describe another time.