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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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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