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Sacred Trees in the Americas: Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

As I continue to explore some of the most important understory trees in the US East Coast and Midwest region, we turn our attention today to the amazing Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin).  Historically, Spicebush was an incredibly important plant, medicine, and spice both to Native Americans and early white settlers in the US and yet today has largely been forgotten in history. Spicebush is a native understory tree with a large range in North America, spanning from Maine to Florida and all the way across the south and Midwest to Texas and up to Ontario. While I’ve taught this plant routinely on my plant walks, and what amazes me is that nobody can even identify it, much less recognize how it might be used. Spicebush has an incredible flavor, medicinal value, and offers much in the way of magic and mystery. It certainly deserves a place in our consciousness and in our traditions.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022). For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Widely distributed across North America, Spicebush is an understory tree that prefers damp soil and can grow in full shade, part shade, or full sun. Spicebush can grow up to 6-12 feet tall.  Spicebush reproduces by colonizing, thus, when you find it, it often grows in large patches in the forest understory. Here in the Appalachian mountains, you will find it growing in deciduous forests on damp hillsides, in wet areas where there are ephemeral springs, or along river bottoms.  When you see spicebush, it is often indicative of rich and fertile soil; it also prefers to grow in areas rich in limestone. Here on the Druid’s Garden Homestead land, we have it throughout our property as an understory tree with Oak-Hickory-Sugar Maple-Black cherry overstory.

Spicebush tree with berries

One of the key features of Spicebush is that it has an extremely early bloom time with fragrant flowers reminiscent of lemon. The clustered bright yellow blooms appear earlier than almost any other tree in our ecosystem. In Western Pennsylvania, it is typically blooming in early March, which is about the same time you start to see the Skunk Cabbage and Crocuses pop up and usually when the maple sap is running! You can often see this blooming sometimes while the snow is still on the ground (making it a very interesting counterpart to Witch Hazel who blooms in very late fall, from a bloom perspective). In the case of Spicebush, it blooms early so it can set its fruit early, well before the overstory trees bloom out and shade out the Spicebush. This is so characteristic of many of the other understory trees and bushes–all of them adapt themselves to be at peak in colder or darker times when light reaches the forest floor.

Spicebush is an important food source for wildlife. Larger mammals like whitetail deer, opossum, and eastern cottontail rabbit feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries. Many species of birds, both game birds, and songbirds, also feed on the berries, particularly in the winter months.  Spicebush is host to two butterflies–the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio Troilus) and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia Promethea).  The spicebush swallowtail lays eggs on Spicebush and then the larvae curls up the leaves to create a cocoon.

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

Spicebush is also known as Wild Allspice, Appalacian Allspice, Spicewood, Feverbush, Snap-bush, Snapwood, and Benjamin-Bush.  Many of these names are tied to the fragrant and amazing spice this bush produces for culinary arts. In fact, Spicebush has been seeing something of a renaissance within the foraging community in the last decade or so.  Even so, its more widespread use as a spice and food has not so far seemed to permeate beyond wild food foraging at present and into regional cuisine, which is honestly a shame.  In fact, Marie Viljoen who wrote the 2018 book Forage, Harvest, Feast makes the bold statement that if Spicebush were better known, it could form a cornerstone of regional Appalachian cuisine, demonstrating the power of this plant for cooking and culinary use.

Spicebush twigs and leaves can be made into a fragrant, slightly spicy tea that is reminiscent of a chai.  The tea is slightly spicy, slightly sweet, and quite pleasant to drink.  This is actually one of my favorite wild teas when I’m camping or foraging–just pick a few leaves and brew them up.  There are places I camp every year that are rich in spicebush and I always look forward to this warming tea on a gentle summer night.

The second way you can make tea when there are not leaves is by harvesting fresh twigs. To make a tea from the twigs, just brew them up with a lid on for 20-30 min (using low heat or even a crockpot to preserve the flavor).  The tea is similar to leaf tea: spicy, warming, and slightly sweet.

The real magic of the Spicebush from a culinary and wild food perspective is in the spicebush berry.  The green berry (unripe) and red berry (ripe) offer two different culinary experiences. The green berries are very sharp, lemony, and peppery and can be harvested anytime before they go red. The green berries are most intense when they are smaller and less plump. They can be used as a pepper substitute due to their very strong taste.

The berries go red in the early fall (you can see this from my images; the leaves start to yellow just as the berries go red). As they go red, you can begin to harvest them.  They will actually stay on the bush for 2 months or more, so you have a very long window for harvest. A good spicebush harvest can offer you several years of spice, which is pretty incredible.

I have found that the easiest way to preserve either red or green berries is to dehydrate them and then place them in the freezer. This prolongs their shelf life and intensifies the flavor. It is important to note that fresh spicebush berries can have a very numbing sensation on the tongue. By drying the berries, all the good spice is left with none of the numbing presents in the fresh berries. Once dry, you will taste that wonderful spice, very much its own flavor but with hints of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, grains of paradise, citrus, and pepper, but you will also have your tongue go numb.  You can also use them fresh in curries and the like; cooking also can remove the numbness.

Marie Viljoen offers over 50 recipes in her Forage, Harvest, Feast that uses spicebush including combining it with citrus for refreshing drinks, using it as a seasoning in many diverse dishes, and using it as a dry rub on meats.  Here are a few recipes online to get you started:  foraged spicebush macaroons, acorn baklava with spicebush berry, a foraged dry rub (I’ve made a version of this and it is divine), a wild curry mix, and making a spicebush ice cream!

Traditionally, as Danie Moerman describes in Native American Food Plants, Native American uses of Spicebush were similar to what I have described above: spicebush was used by the Cherokee and Chippewa to make a beverage, including the stems to make tea.  The spice berries themselves were used to flavor opossum or groundhog. The Chippewa specifically used the berries to help mask or change meats with a strong or gamey flavor (p. 141).

Spicebush in Herbalism

Spicebush is infrequently Traditional Western Herbalism today, but historically, it was frequently used to treat a range of conditions. One of its names, fever bush, offers key insight into the nature of this plant.  King’s American Dispensatory and Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensary describes Spicebush bark and berries being used for medicine here in the Americas.  Spicebush is an aromatic herb being used primarily to treat fever (hence its name fever bush). A decoction (strong tea) was one of the treatments used as a diaphoretic (to support a healthy fever response and regulate body temperature).  It was used to treat all fevers including auge, typhoid, and rheumatic fevers. The berries were used primarily as a stimulant being used for a range of applications including supporting a healthy digestive system (carminative) particularly for alleviating excess gas. The berries can be distilled to create an essential oil of spicebush that is particularly useful for topical applications like bruises and rheumatism.

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

Spicebush in the Magical and Occult Traditions. Like many of my other understory plants, powerful yet unnoticed and unremarked upon, Spicebush has no mention that I can find in this lore.  This includes within the Hoodoo tradition and within the broader Western Occult traditions. However, the Latin name offers us some insight. The reason that the Latin name of Spicebush is Lindera Benzoin is that the oil found in all parts of the plant (part of what makes it tasty, see below) contain benzoic acid, which is the same chemical compound as Styrax Benzoin (for anyone who has used Benzoin incense). Burning the leaves, stems, or berries can give you a benzoin-like aroma, making it a great local incense source (for more on creating incenses generally, see this post on the general practice and this one on local tree incenses). I believe this plant has the potential for a local replacement for anyone who is using Benzoin or other incenses.

Spicebush berries in hand

Native American Traditions. Beyond food uses, I was unable to find anything about mythology, herbal, or other uses by Native Americans for spicebush.  While Native Americans also used this plant for medicine and food, (see the Ethnobotany of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) the specific uses are not specified.  One note in this entry is that Spicebush growing is a sign of a healthy and rich forest.

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

Based on all of my research as well as my own experiences, I want to share three possible divination and magical uses for spicebush.

Masking or illusion. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality has been used in culinary traditions for a variety of enhancements, alterations, and masking of strong flavors.  As suggested by the doctrine of signatures, this kind of quality can not only apply to the use of this tree as a culinary herb but also, as a magical one.

Enhancement. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality also lends itself well to any workings where something needs to be elevated or enhanced in some way.  The spice of the berries literally take ordinary foods and turn them into something unique and extraordinary–and the same can be said of other ways in which you might bring this unique and wonderful tree into your life.

Acting Swiftly and being Early.  Another meaning of the Spicebush is the power in doing things early, swiftly, and ahead of time.  The Spicebush takes advantage of the late winter sun when the overstory is still bare to set fruit and prepare for the season.  Thus, she offers us a powerful lesson with regards to action and focusing on being prepared in advance.

Weather Prognostication and the Wooly Bear Caterpillar

In the last week, I’ve seen almost 50 wooly bear caterpillars. These caterpillars are also known as “wooly caterpillar”, “bear caterpillar” and “wooly worms” (latin: phyrrhartica isabella). These fuzzy, brown and black caterpillars come out just as the weather grows cold. I often find hidding in woodpiles or garden mulch getting ready to hibernate till the spring. The cold seems to summon them forth–you see nothing of them all summer, and then, a few weeks before Samhain they are everywhere. And, dear readers, they are here with a message.

 

These caterpillars, not unlike other famous wildlife in the area, have long been known to predict the harshness of winter. If a wooly bear caterpillar has more brown than black, that means the winter is mild. But, if the caterpillar has more black than brown, the winter will be tough. Here’s a graphic I made to share this wooly bear caterpillar prognostication!

 

The more advanced version of this was taught to me by my grandfather, George Custer, who said that you can “read” the beginning and end of winter with the caterpillar. The brown and black do matter, but the more black at the beginning of the caterpillar, the harsher the beginning of winter will be. The more black at the back of the caterpillar, the more harsh the end of winter will be, and the more prolonged.

Here’s some live examples from photos I’ve taken over the last few years.  This wooly was from last year (and did, in fact, predict a terribly harsh and cold winter!)

 

 

This is a wooly I just found this year–I’m hoping this little guy is right and that winter will be mild and very pleasant!

 

There are stories about where this tradition originated and how it was popularized in the mid 1800’s (you can read more here). This particular folk tradition appears to exist all along the Appalachian mountains, anywhere that the caterpillar typically lives. And the wooly bear is not the only weather prognosticator in this region; we also have Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog 45 minutes north of where I live who also does weather predictions about winter and the coming of spring.

 

I think that embracing these kinds of folk traditions is an important part of rewilding our druid and nature-based spiritual practices. These kinds of locally-based traditions get is more intune and aware of our surroundings.  And folk traditions, whether rooted or not in reality, have tremendous power.

 

Before modern weather prediction, humans relied on a large number of subtle cute from the land and clouds to know what kinds of weather was happening and what to expect both short term and throughout the winter.  Preparation for winter, effective preparation, was critical to survival.  Being able to read the land in this way was a skill that many people once had. I don’t think a lot of us realize how much we see without understanding.  A book ( Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty).  really helped illustrate just how much I didn’t know, and Gatty’s book is a great place to start regaining this lost wisdom.  Gatty shares a lot of information about how to read the landscape, the clouds, the trees, and so on to establish prevailing wind patterns, read the weather, and get from one place to another. His is a rather scientific and observational approach. I like to combine his approach with more esoteric approaches, like the wooly bear’s weather predictions. The combination of these things can help us be more aware and prepared in our environment.

 

The Wooly Caterpillar!

The Wooly Caterpillar!

 

I love seeing the wooly bear caterpillars this time of year. Yes, they say, winter is coming. And yes, you need to prepare. I think its great that they live in my woodpile–just what I need to be attending to before winter comes. I hope that you, dear readers, are settling in. The caterpillars tell me that winter will be fairly mild this year.

 

(I’d also be delighted to hear about other folk customs of similar animal/insect divinations if you have any to share!)

On Letting Go of Your Land and Leaving Your Homestead: Lamentations, Joys, and the Way Forward

A scene from the land...

A scene from the land…

I’m in the midst of a major life transition. After six years of living in South-East Michigan (with five of those here on my homestead), I have made a big life decision to take a new job at a new university and return to my beloved mountains and forests in rural Western Pennsylvania. The pull to return to my homeland, to my family and beloved forests, has been growing stronger each year I’ve been gone, and was part of my decision to return. When I left Western PA at the age of 22 to go to graduate school, I had no idea if I’d ever return.  Now I’m 34, and 12 years have passed. In those 12 years, the landscape of my homeland has been desecrated with extensive amounts of fracking and logging, in addition to the mills and mines which were already so prevalent and destructive. I’ll be moving deep in the heart of fracking territory in Western PA. The fracked lands are my home lands, the soil where my ancestors lay, the trees that taught me this path, and I will not abandon them. My future work on every level: professional, homesteading/personal, spiritual, artistic, herbal, community building lay among these beautiful Appalachian mountains.  And so, I now face the difficult challenge of letting go of my land here in Michigan.

 

This post is part lament, part joyful, and part how to let go.  I’m sharing my process with you, dear readers, because you also at some point may have a decision to make, land to leave, a new path to follow.

 

On being one with the land.

The longer you are with a patch of  land–the more that you become reflections of each other. As I built sacred spaces, butterfly gardens, brought bees and chickens, established a huge garden, and began to do incredible amounts of reskilling, I was undergoing inner transformations and initiations at the same time. As I healed the land and transformed it, the land transformed me. I wrote about this blending of inner and outer work extensively two years ago–one thing it really taught me was that one can live in a sacred manner always, that each action and interaction can be sacred.  It taught me that we can set aside sacred time, build sacred space, and be one with our setting.

 

The same scene in the wintertime....

The same scene in the wintertime….

When you live on the land in the way that I have, there’s an exchange of energy that is difficult to put into words. When I started obtaining a yield from my land, eating what is grown on it, I began to take the land and its nutrients into myself.  My physical health and vitality improved as well. The land physically sustained me in the same way that the physical earth allows me to walk upon it. And I brought nutrients back to the land each season. When I made medicine from the land, the medicine healed me, becames part of me. When I toiled on the land, and I dripped sweat, the soft earth drank it up and my sweat become part of it. When I cried next to the pond upon making my decision to leave, my tears dripped into the water and became part of it. When I breathed out carbon dioxide, the plants breath it in and gave me life-giving oxygen. Every interaction, every action has a response, even if its not visible to the naked eye. The process of homesteading, of herbalism, of spiritual practices, of  inhabiting a landscape that you depend upon for survival ties you so innately and closely to the land that you feel like one entity. This is what I experienced in the five years on my beloved homestead. The question becomes–how can one possibly let go?

 

On the Power of Ritual in Decision Making

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral this year on the pond.

What I have found through this process, and other vision quests and vigils that I have done as part of my spiritual path, is that decisions like this cannot be made in our “normal space” and time, where the demands of life press deeply and urgently upon us and cloud our inner vision. In “normal space” we are in a certain frame of mind, and that is often the mindset of immediate action and reaction rather than contemplation and mindfulness. In order to make such a monumental and life-changing decision, we must set aside sacred space, healing space, space to simply be, reflect, think, cry, feel, breathe….space that allows us to have a new perspective on the decision at hand. For those that study the tarot, the Hanged Man card (or in my tarot deck, the Inverted Tree) exemplifies this–hanging oneself upside down is a sure way to gain a new perspective.  And since ritual can provide us with that altered perspective through the use of ceremonial actions and intention, it served the purpose I needed it to–that of creating a space to ask the land about my decision.

 

Since Imbolc is the time of renewal and the first holiday of spring and occurred right at the time I needed to make the decision, I decided to use the ceremony to help me figure out the way forward. I walked the spiral that we had created as part of our ceremony out on the pond with some fellow druids, and thought much about the land, the beautiful land, woven into my soul. As I walked the winding spiral, I recounted about the gifts the land had given me, the tremendous gifts. As I lay in the middle, I opened myself to the land, asked its permission to go, let it feel deeply my feelings, know my thoughts. As I walked the slow walk out, I recognized the peace and blessing the land was sending me–and how the work is never done, and others will continue it here in Michigan, in their own way.

 

On Letting Go.

The one thing that has given me great peace through this process is this: I am leaving this land in such better condition than I found it. I am leaving it as a nurturing, healing, and bountiful place where many have come to seek rest, rejuvenation, and connection. Where the trees literally sing in the wind, where the stones hold the energies of the space, where the bees and butterflies thrive and grow. I’ve had multiple friends tell me that when they drive up my driveway, they didn’t feel like they were in Michigan anymore–they were somewhere else, somewhere sacred. I realize that this is such a gift, creating and honoring the land in a sacred way. When I arrived, as I detailed in this post, I found heaps of trash, pollution, and general disregard for all life on this property. But now, there are fruit trees, sanctuaries, abundance, fertility….and we’ve honored the land with ceremonies recognizing the passing of the wheel of the year.

 

I realize that this land has imprinted itself on me, that my very body has been nourished from its nutrients.  That even when I leave, I will leave a piece of myself always here in this land.  The land will remember me long after I am gone.  And I, too, will always remember this land–and it will still be here, long after I pass beyond the veil.  So I take comfort, in understanding while my years here were short, they were certainly meaningful.

 

I will miss this place so much!

My amazing garden….

And now, this beautiful homestead is ready for someone else to learn and grow–and they have a great start to doing so, since I’ve laid the foundation, preparing the rich soil, planting many trees, awakening it in a spiritual sense, and loving this land as best as I could. I am eagerly awaiting meeting the new caretakers of this land, whoever they may be, and sharing the secrets of the soil.

 

Realizing there is somewhere new, waiting

I know that out there, somewhere in Western PA, new land is waiting for me. I have been feeling its pull for several years, and now, it is pulling even more strongly by the day. Michigan is not my home–it is not where my ancestors are buried, it is not the land that birthed me, nor where I first heard the voices of the trees. I realize now that Michigan was meant to be a place where I would learn some of the deep mysteries of inhabiting the land, of being tied to the soil, and hearing its whispered secrets in the wind. It was meant to be a place where I had so much opportunity: to learn from some wonderful teachers and mentors in organic farming, natural building, herbalism, food preservation, permaculture design, and much more.

 

And the knowledge I have and the experiences I’ve gained are not common or much established where I am going…so I will have knowledge to share, knowledge that is wanted and needed. I’ve learned so much while being immersed in a great community here and living on my homestead. I’ve already been asked to share my knowledge of herbs and plants and have been told by many they are excited to have me come–and I expect so many opportunities will emerge in the coming years to share what Michigan has blessed me with.

 

Sacred Land, Unsacred Times

A friend who lives about 10 miles from here is also selling her property–she is getting older, and the property is getting too much for her husband and her to maintain.  Like me, she has worked spiritually with the land, hosted rituals, even built a kiva on her property for ceremony.  And so, like me, she has sacred, awakened land.  We had a long conversation about it–how does one sell sacred land?  How can one make sure the right people buy it, honor it, and love it?  This is the challenge we face–but there are many tools to make this happen.  My inner senses tell me that it will work out perfectly for both of our properties, but there is still the worry and concern.

 

How I will miss you, dear homestead!

How I will miss you, dear homestead!

The Way Forward…

Now that I’m leaving, I’m trying to spend as much time as I can out on the land, appreciating it, observing it, taking in these final memories before the property is sold and I am off on my next adventure. While I had felt, on some level, this transition coming for a number of years, I had no idea when it would actually arrive, and I realize that I’m working through some serious grief and feelings of loss.  As much as I have grief about moving, I’m also excited for the new opportunities this process brings–and the new experiences and energies that will be present. My home will be on the market and officially for sale in the next week, and I am already in the middle of making the transition to PA.

 

So, part of this journey and the upcoming focus of my blog will be my transition from a 3-acre homestead to renting again (and what sustainable and spiritual activities can be done in that situation) And part of the story will be finding that new land to call my own, and the story of my work on that land, deep within the heart of the Appalachian mountains.
And so I hope, dear readers, that these upcoming journeys are as rich as my last six years in Michigan have been. Thank you for walking by my side, for learning about this land…and for your companionship on the journey that still is to come.