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.

Plan a Hydrosol Garden

This year, I plan on using the plants from my garden in an entirely new way by making hydrosols or “floral waters.” Hydrosols are steam distilled water-based plant essences that can be used in body care products, flavored waters, baked goods, aromatherapy sprays, and more. Rose water is the most recognizable form of hydrosol on the market.

Hydrosol is stronger than tea but much weaker than essential oils. In Suzanne Catty’s book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy she explains that tea typically has a 0.08:1 herb to water ratio, whereas hydrosols have 3 or 4:1 herb to water ratio. Catty calls hydrosols “herbal espressos,” and just like you wouldn’t drink an herbal tea that may contraindicate medication or a known medical condition, you should also research hydrosols before consuming them internally.

There’s evidence that humans were making hydrosols as long as 5,000 years ago, and the useful floral waters predate essential oils by hundreds if not thousands of years. The original hydrosols were made by putting herbs and water in a pot and bringing the concoction to a boil. A sheep’s skin was hung above the pot to catch the steam, and when the pot was finished boiling the sheep’s skin would be wrung and the hydrosol collected. You can also make hydrosols at home using more modern equipment that you probably already own (read “Rose Water Recipe” for step-by-step instructions), and this year I plan on taking my hydrosol creations to the next level by investing in a 10 liter copper alembic still (see photo, below), which will also allow me to collect very small amounts of essential oil. I’ll blog my way through this learning experience, so be sure to check back in over the course of the summer!

Grow Your Own Hydrosol Ingredients

You need a lot of fresh plant material to make hydrosols, so I’ll add a few new plants to my garden this year including holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. However, to save on seed costs and weeding/watering time, I’m going to prioritize using plants that already grow in my kitchen garden.  I’ve done some research to see which easy-to-grow plants will now double as tasty and useful hydrosol ingredients.

Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum Nobile)

With a sweet, apple-like aroma, this is a great all-purpose hydrosol with a shelf life up to four years. This is the go-to hydrosol for babies and can safely be added to their bath water, used for homemade wet wipes, or rubbed on sore, teething gums. For adults, this astringent hydrosol can be used as a skin cleanser, toner, makeup remover, or soothing eye wash for those suffering from computer fatigue. Internally, chamomile hydrosol can be used much like chamomile tea, as a soothing bedtime drink; simply add a teaspoon to a cup of warm water.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender hydrosol has a floral, soapy taste and many people prefer to sweeten it when taking internally. This hydrosol is ideal for all skin types when used externally, so consider mixing it with oatmeal for a deep cleanser, using it as a makeup remover or aftershave, or spraying it lightly on the skin when experiencing a sunburn, rash, or itch. Like chamomile, it’s safe to use in a baby’s bath water, and it will help people of all ages sleep deeper when it’s sprayed onto linens before bedtime. Keep a spritzer bottle in your car or your desk drawer to enjoy the calming aroma when traffic is frustrating or work feels tedious. Lavender hydrosols should last about two years.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

A member of the mint family, lemon balm spreads like crazy and begs for uses beyond sun tea. I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty using a plethora of lemon balm for homemade hydrosols, which is reassuring because the finished product tastes good and is quite useful.

The citrusy, slightly bitter flavor of lemon hydrosol is best diluted for a refreshing, uplifting, summer beverage. This hydrosol is safe to ingest in limited quantities during pregnancy and can be helpful with morning sickness, water retention, and digestive issues. Suzanna Catty recommends drinking a diluted lemon balm hydrosol for three weeks during cold and flu season to act as a possible prophylactic (dilute 2 tbsp of hydrosol in 1 liter of filtered water per day).

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Like lemon balm, mint can become invasive so I relish it’s abundance while filling a big wicker basket with armloads of this uplifting herb. When taken internally, peppermint hydrosol is stimulating to both the mind and the digestive system; try drinking some in the morning for an instant pick-me-up or spritzing some on your face after spending a hot afternoon in the garden. Peppermint also helps ease pain associated with headaches, so if you feel a headache coming on then spray the air around you. An anti-inflammatory, peppermint hydrosol can be applied externally to help ease the pain of sore or sprained muscles or to soothe uncomfortable bug bites.

Do not give peppermint hydrosol to children under three-years-old, and this fairly unstable hydrosol won’t last longer than one year.

Basil (Ocimuun basilicum)

Basil hydrosol has an intense licorice-like flavor and needs to be diluted to bring out the basil taste we all know and recognize. Play with this hydrosol while cooking savory dishes by mixing a bit into your homemade pesto or salad dressings.

Basil is an effective digestive aid and will help ease a nervous stomach. Also a carminative, add a few tablespoons of basil hydrosol to a glass of water for fast-acting relief from gas and bloating.

For aromatherapy, basil’s crisp and refreshing scent is both balancing and calming. Externally, basil’s anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties make it an especially good option for oily, acne-prone or aging skin.

Rose (Rosa damascena)

The hot pink “rose water” typically sold at grocery stores is too overpowering and artificial tasting for most people. Homemade rose hydrosols, on the other hand, are gentler, subtle, and absolutely delicious. A homemade hydrosol should evoke the feeling of walking through a fresh rose garden and this relatively shelf-stable hydrosol should keep for two years or more.

Rose is a recommended hormone balancer for all ages and can be used to help combat symptoms of PMS, including cramps and moodiness. Externally, rose adds and retains moisture and is particularly beneficial to dry mature, or sensitive skin. Try using rose hydrosol on a cotton ball to remove excess makeup or dirt after washing your face, or add a few tablespoons to a hot bath for an act of pure self-love.

Rose water has a time-tested role in the kitchen, as well, and is used in sweet and savory dishes alike. Trade rose water for vanilla in baked goods, combine it with saffron and cinnamon for a Middle Eastern rub, combine it with fruit syrups or sorbet, or add a splash to a glass of celebratory champagne. After you taste true, high-quality rose water, you’ll start looking for excuses to use it as often as possible!

New Additions

There are a few plants that I plan on adding to my garden this year specifically for the purpose of making hydrosols: holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. I’ll also experiment with cedar, which I can forage locally and year-round. People who are lucky enough to live where eucalyptus or Douglas fir grow wild can experiment making hydrosols with those two native plants, and a few other hydrosol experiments could include the use of catnip, cucumber (use whole fruit), calendula, and rose geranium.

rose-flower-water-june-2011-005Rose Water Recipe

Delightful rose water can be a flavorful culinary addition, a great base for beauty products, or a natural freshener for air and linens.

Total Hands-On Time: 1 hr 45 min

Preparation Time: 15 min

Cook Time: 1 hr 30 min

Yield: 1 cup

Fragrant Rose Water

Roses aren’t just beautiful to look at — they can also be used to make delightful, delicious rose water. It appears in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese cuisines in ice cream, cakes, baklava, and marzipan, and rose water can also flavor lemonade, sodas, shrubs, or cocktails. Also called a “hydrosol,” this aromatic floral water can be added to the base of homemade lotion, sprayed on linens to refresh the scent, or used as a natural air freshener.

Making your own rose water is easy, and it will last for months in the fridge. Find the most fragrant roses possible, and, of course, make sure they’re free of toxic pesticides. (If you use store-bought roses, make sure they’re intended for culinary use.) Try this recipe with other fresh flowers and herbs, such as orange blossoms, lemon balm, or lavender.

For this recipe, use a lidded saucepan with about a 12-quart capacity and a convex lid (a glass lid is ideal for seeing what’s going on inside the pot). You’ll also need two small and sturdy heat-safe bowls, such as ramekins, ceramic bowls, or glass bowls. If you have one, a heat-safe glass measuring cup works well for the second bowl.

Ingredients:

• 6 cups fresh rose petals
• 6 cups water
• Large zip-close plastic bag filled with ice cubes, plus more ice cubes as needed

Instructions:

1. Gently shake the petals to remove any dirt or insects.

2. Place a small and sturdy heat-safe bowl upside down in the center of a very large saucepan.

3. Arrange the rose petals around the sides of the bowl.

4. Pour just enough water into the saucepan to cover the rose petals; the water level should remain below the top of the upside-down bowl.

5. Balance another bowl right side up on top of the first bowl; this is what will catch your rose water.

6. Cover the pot with the lid flipped upside down.

7. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. After it starts to simmer, put the bag of ice on the inverted lid.

8. Adjust the heat if necessary to maintain a gentle simmer.

9. When the ice cubes melt, pour out the water and add new ice cubes to the bag.

10. As the steam rises inside the pot, it will condense on the underside of the cold lid and drip into the open bowl.

11. Peek inside the pot occasionally; when you have about 1 cup of rose water in the bowl (which will take approximately 1-1/2 hours), turn off the heat. Let cool.

12. Uncover the pot and carefully lift out the bowl of rose water.

13. Using a funnel, transfer the rose water to a sterilized glass bottle. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months or until cloudy material forms on the liquid.


Aromatic Rose Cultivars

These exceptionally fragrant cultivars will make delicious rose water.

‘Madame Hardy’ (pictured above): white damask rose; hint of lemon; grows 4 to 6 feet tall
‘Leda’: white flowers with red edges; winter hardy
‘Jaques Cartier’: large, pink flowers; bushy plant; repeat blooming
‘Madame Isaac Pereire’: raspberry-purple flowers; grows as a shrub but will climb; one of the most fragrant roses
‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’: pale, pink flowers; continuous bloomer
‘Gertrude Jekyll’: popular; pink rosettes; repeat flowering


Antique Roses

Some antique rose cultivars can be traced back to the Roman Empire, but the term “antique” refers to any cultivar that dates prior to 1867. These cultivars are known for their especially rich fragrance and longevity, requiring little upkeep. In fact, many older cultivars shrink with the amount of pruning usually done for newer cultivars — spring pruning or too much pruning can reduce blooms. Most older cultivars that bloom only once per year do well with light pruning after they flower, in midsummer.

Thistle Soup Recipe

This Thistle Soup Recipe is made using edible food from the wild.

Make thistle soup by chopping (scissoring would be a better word since an old pair of shears is the best thing I’ve found for cutting up green plants) a pan of thistles. Push them down in the pan and add just enough water to cover the plants. Bring to a boil and let simmer for at least twenty minutes. Now you can season this soup and eat it just as it is or you can add some boiled fish, leftover rice or anything else you happen to have. It’s guaranteed to be good and you can use this stock in a stew.

Chop and boil about six thistles until the water has absorbed most of the juice from the plants. As they’re boiling, add water as needed until you have two quarts of very dark green juice or soup stock. Add to the two quarts of stock, two wild onions — tops and all — or medium chopped domestic onion bulbs. Use less if you like only a mild onion taste. Now add 1/2 pound of fish and 1/2 pound meat. The combination of meat and fish that I like best is 1/2 pound diced browned venison shin and 1/2 pound fillet of bullhead. If you’re still city bound, use 1/2 pound fish or fish heads and six to eight chicken feet or one package of chicken necks or backs.

Chicken feet are rumored to be available at very small cost in some city meat markets and I hear many people buy them for “dog food”. This is the best part of the chicken for making soup but the feet do require parboiling for three minutes to remove their scaly skin before they’re placed in the soup. The feet also can be chopped after parboiling and before being put into the stock.

Anyway, when you finally have your meat and fish placed in the soup, add two cups cleaned and peeled arrowhead tubers or chopped potatoes, a few leaves of sorrel and 1/2 cup chopped cattail stems or celery stalks. Bring to a boil, season well and simmer for about two hours. Taste before removing from the fire and add seasoning if desired. If anyone can think of a way to make a soup as good tasting and nutritious as this for as little as this one costs I would certainly like to hear about it.