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American Spice Bush

Lindera benzoin

American Spice Bush PhotoThe American Spice Bush is a flowering plant native to Eastern North America; from the Atlantic to Kansas, northern Florida to Ontario. It is historically prevalent in the Ohio Valley. The plant consists of a small deciduous tree or shrub, up to 16 feet tall, found in the understory of moist thickets and forests. The plant gives a small fruit, a red berry-like drupe, boasting a pronounced, especially spicy flavor.

While the new growth twigs, leaves, and buds of the spice bush can be made into a tea, and its wood burned for aromatic flavor, it is primarily the fruit of the spice bush that has earned a gastronomic application. The plant’s berry has a flavor resembling allspice with a special twang — hence one of its synonyms, “wild allspice.” Overtones of such spices as mace and pink peppercorn might be found in spice bush berries. Despite similarities to other spices, the flavor of spice bush is utterly unique.

Lacking the chile peppers of Central America, or the wondrous seeds and barks and herbs of Southern Asia, the native peoples of the North American continent utilized a different flavor pallette in order to season and flavor their food. Spice bush berries were a prime source of flavor for centuries in North America, used by tribes such as: the Creek, Cherokee, Rappahannock, Chippewa, and Miami. European settlers also adopted it into their kitchens. Along with the berries, both Native Americans and settlers would use the twigs, shoots and bark to make tea. As online magazine Grit describes, “The berries, dried and powdered, were used during the American Revolution as a substitute for allspice, and early American settlers used dried spicebush bark in place of cinnamon. During the Civil War, spicebush tea often substituted for coffee when rations ran short. Dried leaves [and] young branches were also steeped to make a tonic.”

Today, American Spice Bush is found at farmers markets. A favorite of creative chefs, it is also occasionally used by distillers as an aromatic botanical in the production of locally flavored American gins. While the plant continues to grow throughout its native territory, it is increasingly pushed out by human development and, even worse, the competition of non-native plants. The American Spice Bush is an ancient, indeed prehistoric, flavor unique to North America.

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