Spicebush

Spicy, lemony shrub with its rich history needs a reintroduction into the kitchens and medicine cabinets of North America.

It can be found from Maine to Florida, as far west as Kansas, and in parts of Texas. It is happiest just inside the edge of the forest but can successfully be grown out in the open with strong attention to its watering. The bush has a long American history that is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

When European settlers first arrived in the Americas, they would have had to struggle with many elements of homesickness — particularly the loss of familiarity with the plants around them. Seeds were surely transported, and some even thrived in the New World, but many of the plants that colonists depended on for food, medicine, dye, and textiles had to be left behind. This meant that settlers needed to quickly understand which plants could serve as substitutes for lost staples.

If you’re in a strange place and need to know the landscape, the logical thing to do is to ask the natives. One of the important plants the Cherokee people taught early settlers about was spicebush. Spices have moved humans from place to place, started civilizations, and founded empires. Here on the temperate shores of the U.S., the bright spices cinnamon and ginger don’t grow, but we’ve always had milder and cooler substitutes. Spicebush berries can be used as a replacement for allspice, and the powdered bark makes a serviceable cinnamon.

Spicebush is known as fever bush, Benjamin bush, snap-wood, wild allspice, Appalachian spice, spicewood, and “forsythia of the forest” to name a few. Beyond its culinary use, Native Americans taught the settlers about the ways they used spicebush as a medicine. This native population used the leaves, bark, berries, and sap in various ways. Internally, they prized the plant for its diaphoretic properties, or its ability to induce sweating. Native people used spicebush to ease colds, cough, fever, and measles. Externally, they used oil from the pressed berries to ease the pain of arthritis. They used all parts of the plant interchangeably as compresses (external applications of cloth soaked in tea) for rashes, itching, or bruises, and they also used it to remove internal parasites.

Soon, the colonies began to expand, and many itching to explore the West. As they walked, they deepened their relationship with spicebush. Paul Strauss, in his book The Big Herbs, tells us that chewing on the twigs will quench thirst and moisten the mouth. In this way, spicebush walked with the settlers, many of whom were traveling with their families as they moved toward a farm they’d bought, sight unseen. Spicebush was associated with rich soil and easy access to the water table. If the surveyor said that the shrub was on the land in question, it was a safe bet for a successful farm.

Over time, the Americas’ access to the hot and intense spices of the East became easier. Medical advancements yielded awareness of plants with healing properties, and then modern drugs left the need for many plants behind. Spicebush was left alone in the woods to quietly feed the insects and animals that depend on it for survival. Only now are we coming back to an awareness of its presence?

Cultivating Spicebush

Spicebush is now a featured member of Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. Many are stepping back into the dappled shade of the forest’s edge to become reacquainted with this shrub. Spicebush is fond of moist soils along streams or in rich woods. It grows between 6 and 12 feet high. At its base, one often finds some of the most endangered of our medicinal plants, such as black cohosh, ginseng, false unicorn, goldenseal, and wild yam. In March and April, just before the leaves emerge, it sports pale yellow blooms that are a great early source of nectar for bees. The male and female blooms arise on separate shrubs. When the leaves appear, they are opposite, simple, smooth, and oval to oblong with a spicy, aromatic smell when crushed. In fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow that contrasts sharply with the red spicebush fruit. This fruit is an oval-shaped drupe containing one large seed. It’s bright, glossy red, and spicy when ripe in August through September.

In winter, after all the fruit has been eaten, you can identify the spicebush based on the gray to an olive-green color of the stems, which have a spicy smell when broken. The leaf scars are crescent-shaped, and both young stems and old bark are dotted with pale lenticels (raised pores where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged). Spicebush spreads as a colony, by its roots. If you have a friend with an expanding group of spicebush, late fall is a great time to dig up some of the colony and move it to your house.

Growing spicebush is relatively easy, provided you have a good spot. Plants can be grown in full sun if you water them often and provide a rich soil with plenty of leaf compost. After they get established, they require little in the way of pruning or animal-proofing (deer don’t like them). You can just sit and enjoy the constant visual interest and all the other wildlife your spicebush will attract. The real problem will be deciding exactly which recipe you’d like to use with the leaves, twigs, and fruit your shrub will provide.

Uses for Spicebush

As a supplement, almost all parts of spicebush can be used in food and medicinal preparations. Spicebush bark’s antifungal capacities were demonstrated in a 2008 study that showed its activities against both Candida albicans and the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. To use the bark in this way, either make a tincture or simmer (decoct) the root in water for 15 to 20 minutes.

The entire shrub is high in volatile oils, making all parts of the plant likely effective at settling the stomach when made into a tea. The leaves are especially good as a tea and should be picked while glossy and green. The twigs can be picked to add to a tasty medicinal brew at any time of the year. If you’re hoping to have a cleansing sweat or break a fever, brew your tea for 30 minutes (4 ounces twigs to 1-quart water) and serve hot.

If you wish to use the berries, the possibilities for food as medicine are endless. Berries are ripe around the same time as apples, so think of the potential combinations! Dry berries in a dehydrator, and store them on a shelf or immediately freeze them. Some people cut the seed out of the middle before freezing, but I think that’s unnecessary and potentially removes some of the flavors. You’ll need to run unblanched, frozen berries through the food processor before adding them to a dish. Dried spicebush berries can be ground with a spice-dedicated coffee grinder. Try adding the resulting powder or pulp to coffee, cookies, chai tea, cobblers, curries, and more.

Spicebush is a strong part of our country’s past — but why keep it there? With so much to offer our landscape and even more to bring to our pantry and apothecary shelves, it deserves another look by all who enjoy a little history in the garden.

Spicebush Seed and Plant Sources

Strictly Medicinal Seeds (listed as “spice bush”)
Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co.
Fedco Seeds

Fever Chai with Spicebush

spicebush teaRelieve typical fever symptoms, or make without milk to soothe fever caused by respiratory illnesses.

Total Hands-On Time: 1 hr

Cook Time: 1 hr

Yield: 5-7 cups

Fever Chai can bring some relief to fever symptoms, but you may make it without the milk for someone who’s experiencing a fever related to a respiratory illness, as milk can exacerbate symptoms of congestion.

Ingredients:

• 8 whole cloves
• 8 spicebush berries
• 7 twigs spicebush (broken to equal about 2 ounces)
• 2 sticks cinnamon (smashed)
• 1 cardamom pod
• 1 tablespoon fresh sliced ginger
• 1/2 star anise
• 2 cups water
• 4 to 6 cups milk (or almond milk)
• 2 tablespoons black tea
• Sugar or honey to taste

Instructions:

1. Crush all the spices lightly with a mortar and pestle and place them into a saucepan.

2. Cover the spices with water and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the water has reduced by half.

4. Add the milk to the saucepan and bring back almost to a boil.

5. Remove from heat. Add the black tea, cover, and steep for 5 minutes before straining.

6. While still warm, add sugar or honey to taste, and then use a milk frother to whip your chai.

7. Serve immediately.

Wild Allspice Java Rub with Spicebush

spicebush rubThis sweet and spicy rub is the perfect addition to steak, brisket, or pork.

Total Hands-On Time: 5 min

Preparation Time: 5 min

Yield: 1 cup

This rub is best on a grilled steak or brisket but also works well with pork.

Ingredients:

• 5 tablespoons ground coffee
• 2 tablespoons coarse salt
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons paprika
• 2 teaspoons freshly ground pink peppercorns
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 2 teaspoons ground spicebush berries
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

Instructions:

1. Combine all ingredients and place in an airtight container.

2. This mix is shelf-stable but should be used within 6 months.

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What is an Heirloom Seed?

You can barely walk through a farmers market or produce stand without seeing signs proclaiming “heirloom vegetables for sale” — and who doesn’t want to snack on an heirloom carrot or cook with heirloom squash? The word “heirloom” pulls at our heartstrings and reminds us of simpler things and slower times. Heirloom has also become a hot marketing buzzword for vendors and a term that’s often confused with other phrases, such as “certified organic,” “locally produced,” “non-GMO,” and “non-hybrid.” Some people simply use the term to mean odd, unique, or somehow nonstandard in appearance; however, the term has a specific meaning that’s often overlooked by vegetable vendors and seed salespersons.

The Origins of Today’s Heirloom Craze

What exactly is an heirloom seed? The heirloom history started with an enthusiastic vegetable breeder and bean collector named J.R. Hepler (“Hep”) and his son, Billy, who both recognized that there’s something special about vegetable cultivars that have been passed down from generation to generation as if they’re valuable family keepsakes. The first published usage of “heirloom” as a descriptor for vegetable cultivars is likely Billy Hepler’s 1947 seed catalog, Novelties, Specialties, and Heirloom Beans. Billy promoted himself as America’s youngest seed grower at age 12, and it was hard to argue with him. But young Billy’s use of the term “heirloom” to describe the cultivars he was selling was just a repetition of a term his dad, Hep, had been using for more than a decade.

Billy recounted the origins of Hep’s usage of the word in a 2012 Seed Savers Exchange publication. Billy wrote that his father started collecting beans in 1919 and first used the term “heirloom” in the 1930s to describe old bean cultivars because Hep felt that “these plants were as valuable as pieces of furniture, jewelry, and trinkets that were handed down through generations.” He started using the term “heirloom” with respect to the beans because these cultivars were indeed family treasures. He then applied the term to all cultivars that had been maintained by families through generations.

When Hep and Billy talked about heirlooms, they weren’t talking about what a cultivar looked like, how it was grown, or where it was grown. They were talking about cultivars that brought meaning to someone’s world and that connected people to their ancestry. Americans needed that anchor to the past then, just as we need it now.

Importantly, the heirlooms need us, too. Every heirloom cultivar that’s still around today has been saved and shared by generations of home gardeners rather than by seed companies — and if not for the home seed-saving efforts of individuals, all these great-tasting artifacts of our past would be extinct. For an example of an heirloom seed story, see “‘Michels’ Heirloom Cowpea” at the end of this article.

As American as Apple Pie

In many places around the world, people with a shared culture and lineage have tended to stay put, continuously occupying the same region for hundreds or even thousands of years. In these places, the food that’s grown, the way it’s prepared, and the traditions that surround its eating are strongly tied to that particular place; examples include ibérico ham in Spain and Portugal, haggis in Scotland, and pho in Vietnam.

However, the American experience is different — and this difference may be part of the reason heirlooms appeal to us. Nearly all families in the United States, including the original settlers — the Native Americans — live where they live today because of historic (or recent) displacements. Sometimes this has been voluntary, but often it has been forced. As a result, the typical strong bond that people feel to a homeland where their ancestors once lived has been replaced with a deep connection to the tangible things that represent those places and those ancestries. One of the interesting ways this connection materializes is in our gardens with the carrying on of seed-saving traditions and the passing of beloved cultivars from one generation to the next.

It’s interesting, too, to think about the practicality of traveling with seeds from far-off places with little money and few possessions. Cultivars that have taken long journeys, such as ‘German Pink’ tomato, which came to America from Bavaria in the 1870s, were valued and beloved. They were easily transported and had the added benefit of making a strange land a bit more habitable because at least the vegetables were familiar.

Consider this: Perhaps today’s trend in heirloom vegetables is the direct result of the world in which our lives are more and more portable and therefore less and less anchored to a specific place. In this case, the importance of family heirloom cultivars will only intensify as people discover they’re a convenient and useful way to preserve lore and memories, to stay connected to our heritage, and to retain a sense of belonging no matter where we actually live.

A Modern Take on an Old Idea

How old does a cultivar need to be to be considered an heirloom? That depends on who you talk to. Some authors and heirloom aficionados say that cultivars must be at least 50 years old to be deserving of the term. Others say the cultivar must predate 1950 (a rough demarcation of the beginning of modern industrial farming practices).

In the opinion of our Seed Savers Exchange staff, any cultivar that has a history of being saved and shared by generations of home seed savers can rightfully and accurately be called heirloom, with the following caveat: Only those cultivars that retain their distinct characteristics when they’re propagated are eligible for heirloom status. This means they’re either open-pollinated cultivars that reproduce true to type from saved seed (unlike most hybrids), or they’re crops that are traditionally propagated by cuttings, tubers, roots, bulbs, or the like. Most heirloom vegetables, herbs, and flowers fall into the former category of open-pollinated cultivars, while in the latter category are grafted fruit trees (apples, grapes, and stone fruits); perennials (chives, roses, and some asparagus); and some root crops (potatoes and sweet potatoes).

An important distinction we make at Seed Savers Exchange is between heirlooms and cultivars that have been primarily preserved within the commercial seed trade for decades. We call these “historic commercial varieties” when they’ve been around since before the 1950s. They were usually developed by plant breeders, many within the rich tapestry of small and regional seed companies that blanketed the United States. Many others were developed by publicly funded plant-breeding programs at universities and by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, especially in the golden age of public plant breeding between 1900 and 1960. These historic commercial cultivars represent their own valuable tradition and should be recognized as such. But they’re not heirlooms.

That being said, the important role that the commercial seed trade has played — and continues to play — in keeping old cultivars on the market cannot be understated. While the safest place for an heirloom cultivar is in the hands of many capable gardeners, the sale of heirloom seeds by seed companies keeps at least a few heirlooms in the hands, hearts, and minds of gardeners and allows these old cultivars a venue to be rediscovered by a larger audience.

Take the controversial case of the ‘Green Zebra’ tomato, a fine cultivar that was released in 1983 by breeder Tom Wagner in his Tater-Mater seed catalog. This novel cultivar stays green when fully ripe and is often bestowed heirloom status by seed companies and vegetable vendors because it’s a bit of an odd duck. However, even though the cultivar has been around for a good while, the fact that it hasn’t been stewarded and shared by generations of gardeners means it’s not, strictly speaking, an heirloom — at least, not yet!

While Seed Savers Exchange does a considerable amount of work finding heirlooms, documenting their stories, and keeping the seeds and the stories alive, this work happens in partnership with ordinary gardeners all over the world. And we need your help to do this. Learn to save seeds, adopt, and steward a few cultivars that you love to grow, and share those cultivars and everything you know about them with your friends. Join in on the tradition of saving and sharing seeds so that great heirloom cultivars can survive for another generation of gardeners to fall in love with them.

‘Michels’ Heirloom Cowpea

‘Michels’ cowpea came to Seed Savers Exchange in 1987 from Audrey (Michels) Kreutzer of Osage City, Kansas. For a while, Seed Savers Exchange knew little about the cultivar except that Audrey’s family had maintained it for many years. Here’s Audrey’s original letter to Seed Savers Exchange, which included her cowpea seeds:

Dear sir,

After watching your program on victory gardens, I’m wondering if you could put a name to this bean. The habits and height of the bean resemble the black-eyed bean used for New Year’s Eve recipes, only this has a natural tan-colored pod. The plant sends up a stem producing two cream- and lavender-colored blossoms. Then the long pods form eight to 10 beans inside. Originally, a few seeds were brought from Tennessee in 1941 and my family has kept the seeds growing through the years. However, we could never find a name. It’s a good producer for a small garden and last year we raised 20 pounds.

Thanks,
Andrey Kreutzer

Seed historians reconnected with Ms. Kreutzer in 2012, when she was 96 years old, to learn the rest of the story (see letters, below). Shortly after sharing her account of this family heirloom, Audrey Kreutzer passed away. In 2016, Seed Savers Exchange exposed a wider audience of gardeners to this great-tasting family heirloom by selling packets of the seed. ‘Michels’ cowpea is available at http://www.SeedSavers.org/Michels-Organic-Cowpea for $3.75 per packet of 50 seeds.

Dear sir,

My brother was in the Army at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, in WWII and in 1942 they held their maneuvers by walking from Ft. Leonard Wood across to Tennessee.

While walking in a field, my brother noticed they were in a field of something planted with pods on it. So he picked some pods and put them in his duffle bag and took them along until he got to a more appropriate place where he could mail those pods home to his dad.

And, of course, my dad took over from there. Every year he would plant several rows in the garden. When he had accumulated some seeds my Mom soaked some overnight and then the next day cooked them in a soup (like Navy Beans). But they had a different flavor, and when cream, salt, and pepper were added mom had the soup fixed for the day. My dad always planted enough for his winter supply of soup. This went on for years.

In later years, I sent some seeds to Decorah, Iowa, to see if Seed Savers Exchange knew what kind of seed that was…My Mom & Dad are dead. The brother that was in that field in Tennessee that year is long dead, too. I am 96 years old and living in an Old Folks Home so that about ends the life story of that brand of Cow Pea.

Those seeds you have there are the only ones around in the area, so you had better take care of them!

Sincerely,
Audrey C. Kreutzer