Laurel family (Lauraceae)
Description: This woody shrub is about 5-15' tall and much branched. The central trunk (if present) and larger branches are rather slender; their bark is brown, shiny, and sparsely covered with small white lenticels. These lenticels are circular-angular in shape. The slender branchlets are shiny and brown; their lenticels are white, dot-like, and insignificant.
Alternate leaves are produced along new branchlets. The larger leaves are up to 5" long and 2½" across; they are ovate or ovate-obovate, smooth along their margins, wedge-shaped at their bottoms, and hairless. The slender pedicels of the larger leaves are up to ½" long. The smaller leaves are less than 2" long, more rounded and oval in shape, and less conspicuous than the larger leaves; otherwise, they have similar characteristics. Both types of leaves are medium green on the upper surface, and pale green on the lower surface. There is a variety of Spicebush that has pubescent branchlets and leaves, but it is uncommon and restricted to southern Illinois. The yellow flowers are perfect or dioecious (male & female flowers on separate shrubs); they occur in small clusters along the branchlets before the leaves develop. Individual flowers are less than ¼" across; each flower has 6 yellow sepals with a petal-like appearance and no petals. The male flowers have 9 stamens (organized into 3 groups), while the female flowers have an ovary with a single style and up to 18 pseudo-stamens. The blooming period occurs during the mid-spring and lasts about 2 weeks. The flowers are fragrant; the crushed leaves and branchlets have a spicy aroma. Each fertile flower is replaced by a fleshy ovoid drupe with a single stone; this drupe becomes red when it is mature during the late summer or fall. The woody roots are shallow and much branched. This shrub reproduces by reseeding itself.
Cultivation: This shrub prefers dappled sunlight to medium shade, moist to mesic conditions, and a fertile loamy soil with decaying organic matter. It is adaptable to cultivation in yards and gardens.
Range & Habitat: The native Spicebush is common in the southern half of Illinois, occasional in NE Illinois, and largely absent in the NW section of the state (see Distribution Map). Habitats include rich deciduous woodlands, wooded bluffs, bottomland forests along rivers, wooded slopes (usually toward the bottom), and gravelly seeps in shaded areas. While Spicebush is fairly shade-tolerant, it benefits from occasional disturbance that reduces the dense shade of some canopy trees, particularly Sugar Maple, American Beech, and similar trees.
Faunal Associations: The flowers are cross-pollinated by various insects, particularly small bees and various flies. Insects that eat the foliage of Spicebush include the caterpillars of Papilio troilus (Spicebush Swallowtail), Callosamia promethea (Promethea Moth), and Epimecis hortaria (Tulip Tree Beauty). The grubs of the long-horned beetle, Oberea ruficollis (Sassafras Borer), bore into the branches and roots of this shrub. The fruits are eaten occasionally by some upland gamebirds and several woodland songbirds (see the Bird Table for a listing of these species). These birds help to distribute the seeds to new locations.
Photographic Locations: Busey Woods in Urbana, Illinois, and a wooded bluff in Vermilion County, Illinois.
Comments: This attractive shrub is quite conspicuous during the spring when the flowers bloom; it is one of the first shrubs to bloom in wooded areas. During the summer, it fades into the background and becomes rather ordinary-looking; however, it can be readily identified by the spicy aroma of its crushed leaves and branchlets. During the fall, Spicebush becomes attractive once again when its leaves turn yellow and its fruit becomes red. Another woody species with a similar distribution in Illinois, Sassafras albidum (Sassafras), is a small to medium tree with similar flowers and aromatic foliage. Unlike Spicebush, some of its leaves have lobes (2-3) and its mature fruits are blue.