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.

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Forsythia 

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.

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Our rather pathetic remaining Forsythia. That’s the neighbors’ house in the background. 

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.

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Spicebush flowers

From the middle distance, Spicebush flowers can look like a golden mist.

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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.

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Spicebush fruit

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.)

2014-10-20 09.26.15 spicebush fall foliage

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.

42 Comments on “Spicebush and Forsythia”

  1. Envious of your spicebush berries! There’s just a lonely male here. I bought five small ones, thinking the odds would be good at least one would be female — but the location was a little too remote for the intensity of that year’s drought. Will try again closer to the water source, with slightly bigger specimens.

  2. I don’t know your spicebush but with perfume and berries it would be the winner. I used to be impressed with the yellow flowers of Forsythia but that was before I discovered that a lot of other plants offer more in perfume and for nature. Amelia

  3. Don’t think I have ever seen spicebush around here in Southeastern Michigan. My forsythia bit the dust after a couple of years. Flowers always got nipped by frost and without them, what’s the point? Thanks for sharing the pictures. Of course, I will be buying nothing this year as the Governor has said gardening is not essential and has made all the garden supply stores close.

  4. For goodness sakes. I didn’t know you had to have a male and female. I have tried for two years to get this shrub to grow in our garden. The first ones died that first year. I replaced with just one shrub to see if I could get it to grow. It looked great all season. This past mild winter it seems to have died to the ground but is recovering from the bottom. Now I hear I have to have two, M & F to have berries.. I wonder how you tell what you have?? Do you know??? It was beautiful last fall with big bright yellow leaves. I hope it survives and thrives even without berries. Only I want the berries.

  5. So interesting. I found that spicebush is native in Texas, but in widely separated areas: a few counties on the far eastern side of the state, and in a clump of counties in central Texas. It’s not shown here, and none of our native plant nurseries carry it. If they did, I’d buy some in a minute, if I had a spot for it (which I don’t). I love forsythia, and finding a substitute for it that would grow here would be lovely.

  6. I planted one spicebush a couple years ago. It turns out that it gets berries but I know of no other spicebush in the area. It is now about 6 feet tall. The flowers are very pretty but for impact nothing like forsythia. In my experience forsythia grows like crazy here and I won’t have it on my property. Plant triage on the basis of usefulness and beauty prevents it. The Spicebush Swallow tail has a very comical looking caterpillar which I am hoping to see. It has a habit of curling a leaf around it during the day and comes out at night. The leaves, berries and twigs all have a spicy odor when crushed, similar to sassafras. People make tea with the eaves. All sorts of animals love to eat it. It is a great shrub!

  7. This is an attractive shrub that I didn’t know much about. I hope you do see the swallowtails. As a butterfly monitor at Illinois Beach State Park and, before that, in Peoria for many years, I used to see lots and lots of swallowtails. Now I see none at all and it is a great sorrow for me.

  8. I have two spiceberry bushes that I adore, mostly because of the smiley spicebush caterpillars that roll up in the leaves. It took a number of years for the bushes to produce an abundant crop of berries. Nothing better on a cold day than a cup of spiceberry tea, made from seeping small twigs. Enjoy!

  9. hmmm. . . I still like forsythia. It is not common here like it is everywhere else. In fact, it is quite rare. A common problem that I notice is that they do not get pruned like they should. They sucker a lot, so most of us try to prune the suckers out. We should instead prune out aging stems, so that some of the suckers can grow up to replace them. Lilacs should be pruned in a similar manner. The technique is ‘alternating canes’.

  10. I don’t know spicebush, but we do have Forsythia, and it is a lovely addition to the garden. It tends to take over and go wild, but we trim it once a year, and it has such a pretty flower….and now I will remember to sing ”Hello Dolly” in spring when it is flowering.

  11. I see you’ve let your species tulip obsession take over your header. Lovely! If only Spicebush didn’t like shade and moist soils, it would definitely be one for the list here. Love the ‘Hello Dolly’/Mozart analogy!

  12. I planted forsythia years ago before I became interested in native plants. The brief flowering period wasn’t worth all the space it took (I have a small garden). It also put out lots of suckers. It was a happy day when I dug it out.

  13. I have several forsythias, and they are lovely when they bloom. As I was reading about the wildlife-friendly attributes of spicebush, I was thinking, why don’t I have this shrub? Then I saw the bit about the alkaline soil. Our soil is definitely better for acid lovers, though there are pockets of alkalinity. Bummer! I am always on the outlook for plants that help wildlife.

  14. Hello Jason at some point in the past, I thought Forsythia and Spicebush were the same as they looked so similar. Thanks for detailing the differences and enlightening me! We have a Forsythia and room for a Spicebush, the flowers are very unusual and look almost like the flowers of a Wintersweet. I just hope it doesn’t mid acidic soil too much.

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