Tales from the Bent Twig Trail: Spicing it up.

By Wren Smith

spicebush leaves

There is nothing like a walk in the woods to remind us “there’s more to life than meets the eye.” The sense of smell is particularly good at conjuring up layers of experience and emotions. Dianne Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses, explains that our sense of smell developed from the oldest part of our brain, the olfactory lobe. She also demonstrates that plant odorants (tiny molecules that carry odors) have a long shelf life in our memory. Thus, our sense of smell can whirl us back to other places and other times, and it provides primal connections with the rest of nature. Many plants along the Bent Twig Trail have fragrances well worth smelling. Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is one of my favorites!

Spicebush is a common but often overlooked native understory tree, usually found in rather moist woods, often in the company of  pawpaw, as is the case on this trail. Spicebush can make a great small tree for the yard, although it will not tolerate being in full sun. The trees have a tendency to be somewhat bushy and seldom grow more than 15 feet tall. The leaves are simple, ovate “spoon-shaped,” with no teeth along the margins and are arranged alternately along the branches.  If you find a tree meeting the above description, you can gently bruise a leaf to release a spicy fragrance. It is a tree that I can easily recognize by smell.

When you find a spicebush tree with berries (they are green now, but will soon turn red), give one a squeeze. It will release a bracing oily substance that some folks claim will keep away mosquitoes. However, I’ve not found it to be much of a deterrent, or much research to support that claim – I just happen to enjoy its bracing fragrance on my hands. In fact, it might make a lovely wildwoods cologne. We could market it as “Lindera Evenings” perhaps? But let’s not let Ralph Lauren in on this secret.

Over the years, I have found many references to spicebush as a beverage and seasoning. If you lightly  scratch the twigs, they emit a more subtle spicy fragrance than the berries. The young twigs of spicebush collected in the spring make a pleasant beverage when simmered in water.  I like my spicebush tea sweetened with honey. Of course before eating any wild foods, be certain of its identity and be judicious in your harvesting. Sorry – no collecting at Bernheim.

Some accounts suggest that the dried berries are best if used as a substitute for allspice.  There are stories of the Cherokee using them to flavor meat dishes. They collected the red berries and dried them until they turn dark brown. These dried berries were then ground and used to flavor opossum, groundhog and other game. Being an experiential learner, I did some culinary investigations years ago with these dried crushed berries. All the dishes that I concocted using the berries as a substitute for allspice were dismal failures. However, when I added just two or three ground berries to stew type dishes, they imparted a distinctive and acceptable flavor. I must say the groundhog was especially good!

Want more Tales from Bent Twig? Click here to view the archive.




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