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Spring 2011

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

March 29, 2011

Spicebush: A blooming panacea

In March, the early-blooming, sweet-smelling flowers of spicebush enliven local parks with a greenish-yellow tinge.

Twigs bear clumps of either male or female flowers. Each bloom is only about a quarter-inch in diameter.

Emerging leaves are fragrant with camphor, as are the twigs. Both can be steeped to produce an herbal tea.

The Cherokee drank the tea as a tonic, a cold remedy and for blood and menstrual problems. The Iroquois used "fever bush" to lower fevers. Mohegan children chewed the twigs to rid themselves of worms.

During the Civil War, some Confederate soldiers drank spicebush tea, which tastes very much like a spicy, aromatic black tea.

A 2008 study revealed that spicebush bark extract strongly inhibits growth of both Candida albicans yeast and the fungus that causes athlete's foot.

The shrub can also be a balm for the garden: Deer avoid it, so the bush thrives in both woodlands and on urban lawns.

SOURCES: Letters of Applied Microbiology, "Native American Ethnobotany," "Wild Plant Teas and Coffees of Missouri," "Florida Ethnobotany," Journal of Materia Medica, USDA

Spicebush in flower