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What to do with spicebush

A spicebush in winter

A spicebush in winter

[Written February 2 but for some reason not published till February 10. It’s been too cold and snowy for the last week to continue my census.]

Inspired by the first warm day of the year (a balmy 39 degrees!) and by the amazing book Tending the Wild by the ethnobotanist Kat Anderson, I began my plant census this morning.

After all, permaculture, and gardening in general, shouldn’t only be about planting. The flip side is learning to care for, manage and use the plants already in place – at least those that are usable. If you’re starting with a suburban lawn and a couple of foundation shrubs, that may be an insurmountable challenge. In our case, though, we have a very rich (though neglected) environment, and there should be plenty to work with.

Between the first European settlement in the late seventeenth century and our initial gardening efforts in 2010, I doubt that anyone deliberately planted anything on this land. As far as I know, the land was used only for logging, gravel mining and deer hunting. So every plant that we did not introduce – whether native, naturalized or invasive – is a “volunteer” whose seeds were carried here by wind, water, birds, pollinating insects or truck tires.

We haven’t ignored what we found growing here. Every spring, we’ve happily foraged on dandelions, wild cress, wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns and daylily shoots, and every summer on wild grape leaves, black raspberries and blackberries (and this year, we ate autumn olives in the fall). We’ve tried a few other edible weeds and learned the difference between “edible” and “good to eat.” We’ve picked wildflowers for bouquets. We’ve flagged the sugar maples, though we haven’t tried tapping them yet, and we’ve made tea from red clover blossoms. We’ve even discovered the favorite foods of the chickens and rabbits.

But what we haven’t done is taken a census of what’s here and tried to understand how the plant communities work – and how they could be made to work better.

So this morning I began in the southwestern corner of the property, at the edge of the creek and the border of our neighbor’s hay field, and immediately realized that early February is not the ideal time to be taking a plant census. Without leaves, flowers or fruit, most plants are unidentifiable to an amateur, if not invisible altogether.

I did, however, establish that the southwest corner is full of spicebush plants.

The spicebush, native to the Eastern U.S.,  is an attractive shrub (attractive even in winter, because it has a graceful form) that grows in the understory of the woods. It can supposedly reach 20 feet, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one taller than 8 feet. Even in shade, it has deep-green leaves and abundant yellowish-green flowers. In the fall, the female plants bear hard red berries that have an allspice-y scent.

Here’s what I’ve learned about spicebush:

– The berries can be crushed and used to flavor meats and baked goods. You can’t dry them, because they’ll go rancid, but you can freeze them for storage over the winter.

– The berries, leaves and twigs can be used for tea. I tried making some tea today from the twigs and buds; it smelled lovely but didn’t taste very good. The tea has medicinal qualities (like all natural remedies, it cures whatever ails you).

– Berries make good sachets for closets and clothing drawers.

– The plant reproduces clonally for the most part, putting up suckers in the spring that can be cut and transplanted.

– It is a favorite of butterfly larvae and birds; deer browse it too, but apparently not very much.

– It is not nitrogen-fixing.

– It isn’t noxious to other plants or to animals.

Still to be determined:

– Are the branches suitable for anything? Basket-weaving? Barbecuing?

– Does pruning help or hurt it?

– Most important, what other plants does it want to be near? It’s a mid-level plant; what’s appropriate for the upper layer and the lower layers?

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