Spring is here folks and it is time to clear out the old and bring in the new. I say, “Out with the forsythias and in with Lindera benzoin.” Spring cleaning doesn’t just apply to the inside of our homes, but extends into our gardens as well. I don’t mean a simple raking up; I mean reconsidering those old-fashioned, yellow blooming shrubs that we see all over the city and suburbs. Why not pull them out and put in something a little more exciting?
Lindera benzoin, aka spicebush or wild forsythia, is the perfect and vastly superior substitute for forsythia. Who doesn’t want something spicy or wild in their garden? Spicebush or wild forsythia are such apt monikers for this denizen of southern Ontario woodlands. Like forsythia, it blooms with its yellow flowers providing a show in early spring before it leafs out. It doesn’t have the in-your-face, here-I-am floral display of the common forsythia, but rather a light tracery of yellow along its branches. Its flowers are best seen against a backdrop of dark-coloured bricks, evergreens or just against the bark of larger trees.
While common forsythia may take Round 1 of the match (depending on whether you prefer its garish yellow flowers), Spicebush takes the rest of the match. Common forsythia has little to offer after flowering, a mediocre architectural habit, a muted fall display and no bright berries. Spicebush has so many desirable characteristics, it leaves me scratching my head as to why we don’t see more of these shrubs incorporated into landscapes. After the subtle yet lovely floral display, emerge leaves of the most perfect green imaginable, with a crystalline sheen so relaxing to the eyes. This is where one will understand how the plant earned its common name.
Take a leaf, crush it and roll it between your fingers. Now breathe in and enjoy the incredible fragrance, a hybrid of citrus notes with undertones of pepper. So good, you may want to eat it! I just won’t advise anyone to do that, having no idea about its edibility. Besides, leave the foliage for the larva of the beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly, which will be lured to your yard and will reward you by visiting your garden to complete its life cycle.
In autumn, the leaves turn a crisp yellow, although I have seen a few with a warm underglow of orange. These shrubs have a prostrate to rounded growth habit, dependant on being grown in shade or sun. Don’t plant just one of these shrubs. You’ll want at least two and, if you follow the design rule of using odd numbers when trying to achieve a non-formal look, opt for three or five planted in groupings. My reasoning is this – you want to increase your chances of getting at least one female plant.
Yes, we are talking about sex in the garden. Like hollies (Ilex spp.), female plants will bear bright red fruit and provide you with winter interest. As is the case with the human world, one male will be happily obliged to take care of fertilizing two or more females. Sexed varieties of these plants don’t exist to my knowledge but, if you visit a garden centre when they are in bloom, a skilled nursery staff member may be able to discern males from females. Otherwise, purchase an older plant that has the previous year’s berries, and you will know that you have a female. If your property borders a wood lot where these plants grow naturally, you could potentially have berries on a single specimen.
Spicebush is hardy to zone 4, making it suitable for growing in most of southern Ontario. Highly adaptable, from full sun to shade, just ensure that the shrub is situated in moist, slightly acidic soil. It isn’t very picky about soil pH. Whether it be in sand, clay or loam, if you meet the plant’s need for water, it will be content and thrive. In fact, it is the ideal plant for those yards with storm-water swales. Those swales are problematic for turf grasses and should not be modified as it may be a by-law infraction to alter such grading.
Subtle floral display, lightly perfumed, seductive red berries and low maintenance, what more could a gardener ask for? If I was a guy plant, spicebush would be my dream girl! So, come this spring, visit a local nursery and ask for it by name.