by Betsy Miller, M.S., CNS, LDN
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a small deciduous tree that typically grows in the understory of forests. The tree is native to eastern North America, and ranges along the Appalachian mountains from Florida to as far North as Ontario and as far west as Kentucky and Texas. The leaves and berries of spicebush are incredibly aromatic when crushed, hence the name of the plant. Spicebush is incredibly common, and is easily found and harvested for medicinal use.
Spicebush has a rich history in Appalachian herbal medicine. The leaves, buds and new growth twigs can all be made into a tea that is warming and stimulating, helping with both digestion and circulation. The plant is considered to be a diaphoretic, meaning it is able to manipulate the circulation and ventilation of the body to control heat, often by promoting sweating to cool the body. In King’s American Dispensatory, one of the primary texts for Eclectic herbalists, spicebush is listed as aromatic, tonic and stimulant, and is touted for its virtues in the treatment of fevers and “ague,” or fevers characterized by chills. The aromatic volatile oils are carminative and antispasmodic, meaning they relieve gas, bloating and spasm of the gut. Topically, the crushed leaves and berries make an excellent poultice for bruises, swellings and painful joints.
Spicebush also played a role in American history; during both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, berries from the plant were dried and crushed, and used as a substitute for allspice when trade products were sparse. Soldiers during the Civil War also used the berries, leaves and twigs as a substitute for coffee because of the plants stimulating properties.
Beyond the medicinal uses, spicebush is delicious to drink as a tea, especially in the winter when you need something warming and moving to sluggish circulation. The leaves and twigs should be harvested in the spring, when the young twigs are just coming out and are flexible with unopened buds. Leaves and berries can continue to be harvested throughout the summer. Ones the leaves are dried, they can be prepared as an infusion by steeping them in just-boiled water for 10-15 minutes. Twigs should be prepared as a decoction by bringing water to a boil, adding the twigs, and simmering at a low boil for 15-20 minutes. The berries can be dried and powdered in a mortar and pestle, and added to aromatic spice mixes as a substitute for allspice. Spicebush combines well with two other native North American plants, sassafras and sweet birch, to make the traditional circulatory tonic known as the Three S Formula.
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Betsy Miller M.S., CNS, LDN
Betsy has always been drawn to the healing arts and the natural world. She began her self-study of herbal medicine in 2001, reading anything and everything she could on the subject of plant healing, and taking classes wherever she could find them. Drawn by her desire to be closer to nature, she attended the University of Vermont and completed her undergraduate studies in Environmental Science and Ecological Agriculture, focusing on forest gardening with wild edibles and medicinals. During this time she also completed her 200 hour training in Vajra yoga, and taught for several years in the Burlington area. Desiring to pursue her study of herbal medicine, Betsy received her Masters of Science in Medical Herbalism from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She currently practicing as a clinical herbalist, licensed nutritionist and Healing Touch practitioner in the Washington D.C. area. She is focusing her practice on supporting fertility and reproductive health, immune system health and digestive health.