Spicebush and Forsythia

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Forsythia, two shrubs that burst into yellow flowers in early spring. They seem to exemplify two different styles in the garden.

Spicebush in the back garden.

The beauty of Spicebush flowers is subtle, and you have to get up close to appreciate it. It’s enhanced by proper light and a dark background, otherwise it is difficult to photograph.

Spicebush against our brick garage.

Without those elements, and from a short distance, Spicebush is unremarkable. It is an introverted shrub, but a very praiseworthy one. It has great wildlife value beyond the early flowers. The leaves feed the caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (though I have never seen a caterpillar on mine, which makes me sad). And the ripe red berries are a high quality food for migrating birds.

What’s more, Spicebush leaves have a pleasant citrus aroma.

Our one Forsythia bush in the back garden.

By contrast, Forsythia is an extrovert. It is bright, brash, and unconstrained.

However, some consider Forsythia to be something of a one trick pony. Where’s the second act, they ask, after the flowers are done? This question is discussed in one of my more popular posts, “Forsythia: For or Against?”

Carillon, Chicago Botanic Garden, Evening Island
View of massed Forsythia from Carillon Hill at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

A mass of Forsythia makes a statement that cannot be missed even at a considerable distance. More like a joyful shout. Some say that its dense, thickety habit provides good cover for song birds. Forsythia also makes a decent hedge plant, which I wouldn’t say of Spicebush.

Close up of Spicebush flowers.

I wouldn’t devote more space to Forsythia, but I’m glad we have the one shrub. I would be sad if some new disease emerged and wiped out all the Forsythia in the world.

Even so, I give a higher priority to Spicebush in our garden. Ideally, there should be space for both Spicebush and Forsythia. If I had to choose only one, though, I would go with the Spicebush.

How about you?

54 Comments on “Spicebush and Forsythia”

  1. I have forsythia, which I like to cut in February to force indoors and have some hope of spring to come.
    The spicebush seems to be a pollinator favorite and it’s a shrub/tree I’d like to have sometime. You have given me encouragement!

  2. I love seeing forsythia in other gardens, especially when it’s paired with screaming pink ornamental plum trees. I have neither spicebush nor forsythia in my garden but would have both had I more space. That wasn’t really your question was it?

  3. Hello Jason, we have a young forsythia and look forward to its bright, gaudy yellow display each spring. I don’t like singling out plants because they don’t perform 24/7 nor have year round interest with flowers, berries, leaves and so on. We have many trees, shrubs and plants that are briefly once-a-year wonders and I love each one. Performing plants are more relevant in gardens where space is a premium.

  4. I’d go with the spice bush. I’m not made about forsythia, but it’s great in the right place. I used to have two of them screaming up at me on one of our slopes that I can see from the house. I moved them down below and now I enjoy wandering down to visit/admire them and (when they are bigger again) am looking forward to forcing stems in the house. Thanks for introducing me to the Lindera, delicately pretty.

  5. Now that I have plenty of potential garden space I’ll be growing a lot more shrubs like Lindera, Corylopsis and the like. As far as Forsythia goes, I prefer the variegated varieties as their season of interest extends beyond the flowers and they tend to remain smaller in size. A particular favorite is ‘Fiesta’.

  6. Spicebush is such a lovely thing. I was delighted when I noticed it in southern Illinois and Missouri when trail riding in ravines and low places, often a open colonies. The leaves were bright yellow with fruit very noticeable in October. I SO WANTED to jump down and take photos (it’s HARD from a moving horse!) but instead took pleasure informing all my riding buddies of all it’s attributes. I am truly jealous you get to enjoy it out your windows!

  7. Both forsythia and spicebush evoke pleasant memories. Spicebush grew in the woods in back of the house where I grew up. The leaves and twigs had that wonderful aroma when crushed, and the berries were a bright orange-red. I have a few forsythia here, but no spicebush. I think it has naturalized here in Oregon, and is probably available somewhere.

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