This blog is a cooking lesson. I enjoy foraging for wild foods. A sure sign of the upcoming autumn in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest are the Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) trees with their beautiful red berries. The Spicebush is a small tree or large shrub that is very special. It is a native of North America and can be found from southern Ontario to Florida, but you have to know what to look for in order to see it. You never want to assume a berry is edible. Make sure you have identified it accurately.
The Spicebush leaves give off a spicy aroma when crushed. Before the leaves appear in the spring, small yellow flowers appear along the twigs, making the shrub easy to see along streambanks and roads. The twigs and flowers are used in Spring Tonics in the Appalachians. During the Civil War, the twigs and leaves were used as a substitute for foreign tea. Also commonly called Feverbush, it was high in Vitamin C and traditionally believed to be both anti-viral and used to lower fevers. I look for the flowers on the bare stems each April to add to my special spring tea of black birch, Sassafras and Spicebush.
However, the shiny, bright red berries are my favorite thing to spot in early September. If you squeeze the berry it gives off a spicy, slightly medicinal scent. During the American Revolution the berries were used as a substitute for allspice, which was imported from British-held Jamaica. The berries were dried and crushed. They were also used as a substitute for Cinnamon.
If you sample a single berry, you will discover that they have a thin, juicy skin covering a large seed that you can bite through. The berry is bitter tasting with a unique flavor difficult to describe. When you mash the berries including the seeds and bake them, the bitter taste disappears, and the spicy scent remains.
If you want to store the berries for future use, don’t dry them. They are too oily and may smell rancid if you just leave them in a jar. Grind them up in a spice grinder or blender. If you don’t have either, spread them out in a clean old towel and smash them with a hammer. After that, spread the crushed berries on a cookie sheet and freeze them. Then sweep them in a freezer container. This way you can remove small amounts of the berries at a time.
Although Spicebush is endangered in a number of states, it is not in North Carolina. You should not harvest the Spicebush in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. You can learn to identify it there and then you will see it growing in surrounding areas along stream banks and meadows. Settlers used the presence of spicebush as one of the ways to identify good farming land. This year It seems to be thriving along the double loop trail in Joyce Kilmer. I have never seen so many!