Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a native alternative to Forsythia that’s certainly worth considering. It’s a shrub that offers much more than yellow flowers in spring.
Admittedly, Forsythia in bloom has a visual impact that Spicebush really doesn’t have, especially from a distance. In musical terms, where Forsythia is singing “Hello Dolly” as loud as it can, Spicebush is humming a Mozart concerto.
That would be Forsythia at it’s best, of course. Truth be told, our one remaining Forsythia (the rest were removed years ago) is a pretty unimpressive specimen. Not sure if that’s due to excessive pruning, borers, or something else.
From the middle distance, Spicebush flowers can look like a golden mist.
On closer examination, the flowers are quietly attractive. What’s more, unlike Forsythia, Spicebush is not a one trick pony. Once those yellow flowers are gone, Forsythia won’t do anything interesting for the rest of the year. Whereas Spicebush still has a lot to offer, both ornamentally and especially in terms of wildlife value.
For starters, Spicebush is a host plant for Spicebush and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies as well as several species of moths. (I have yet to see any Spicebush Swallowtails, but I continue to hope.) And in late summer it bears red fruit that is popular with birds, including Robins and a variety of thrushes, Vireos, and White-Throated Sparrows. (Though you need both male and female plants to get the fruit.)
Once autumn arrives, Spicebush leaves turn a pleasing yellow.
Spicebush is native to a wide swath of the east and south, but is also to parts of Illinois (including Cook County), Michigan, and Iowa. It likes moist, shady conditions and alkaline soil, but is fairly adaptable.
If a shrub with quiet beauty and high wildlife value are your priorities, Spicebush can be an excellent choice for shady gardens.