Spicebush – Ethnobotany and division of the flower sexes

3 April 2017 ~ Jim’s ethnobotany of spicebush below Helen’s observations.

Traipsing through the lowland forest this past weekend and even on the cold dreary days of last week, it was impossible to miss hints lemon yellow glistening in the understory. Drawing nearer, it became detectable that the bright color standing out against the past winter’s worn out brown was from the small flowers of the spicebush shrub, Lindera benzoin. Spicebush is in the Lauraceae or Laurel family, which includes sassafras and avocado.

IMG_0003 Lindera benzoin spicebush

spicebush flowers dominating the color scheme of the understory 4/2/2017

For those of you also in the outdoors this week and near a spicebush, focus in close and look into the flowers. Do you see pollen laden anthers of the male staminate flowers?… or do you see a roundish central pistil overshadowing small non-functional stamens in the female pistillate flowers? There are only male flowers on some bushes and only female flowers on other bushes. This type of division of the flower sexes with separate male plants and separate female plants is indication that spicebush is dioecious. Dioecious means “two houses” and is a term used mostly to apply to species with separate female and male plants. The males produce viable stamen with pollen for cross pollination of the female plants. I noted on my walks that the majority of the spicebush shrubs were bearing male flowers. According to John Eastman in the Book of Forest and Thicket (1992). “the female plants will be pollinated from “early solitary bees, ladybug beetles and by bee flies.” The female flowers will eventually drop, and if pollinated, the ripening ovaries will become lipid rich small red drupes appearing toward the end of summer. Wood thrushes and veeries enjoy the ripened fruit as do an occasional songbird.


P1070404 *spicebush berries lindera benzoin

spicebush berries or drupes

Spicebush flowers before the leaves emerge in late winter to early spring. Many folks who frequent the outdoors in the mid-Atlantic know this native plant even in a deer nibbled wood. Deer avoid munching on this plant most likely due to the aromatic scent just beneath the outer bark ~ making it unappetizing for these four-legged herbaceous beings. Often spicebush is the most prolific understory plant where deer are in high populations. The scent is one of nature’s defense mechanisms. No matter the season, scratch the bark and the spicy citrusy scent is very apparent. The scent is also apparent in the flowers bark and berries.

male staminate flowers lindera benzoin spicebush

Spicebush male staminate flowers above and female pistillate flowers below (not quite opened) photo taken at the macrophotography studio of the USGS Bee Monitoring and Monitoring Lab

Lindera benzoin pistillate flower, 23 March 2017 spicebush, Howard County, MD, Helen Lowe Metzman_2017-03-24-16.44

Jim Duke, who turns 88 on 4/4/2017 on spicebush:

on the phytochemicals:

“thanks to the work of Tucker and associates (1994), we know that the leaf essential oil is dominated by beta-caryophyllene (~ 15-50%), 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one (~2-35%), and (E)-nerolidol (~10-12%). The twig essential oil is dominated by 1,8-cineole (~45%), sabine (~7%), alpha-terpineol (~ 7%), and alpha-pinene (~6%). Fruits are dominated by alpha-phellandrene (~65%). (Tucker, Maciarello, Burbage and Sturtz, 1994).

That shows the chemical variation in different plant parts. If you were after a single phytochemcial, you would usually find more beta-caryophyllene in the leaf essential oil, more 1,8-cineole in the twigs, and more phellandrene in the fruits. Once we get our database integrated this might hint at which part of the plant might be better for a given indication. There are at least four antiyeast compounds in spicebush: borneol, cineole, limonene and beta-pinene. This suggests, but by no means proves, that you’d be better off with the twigs for a yeast infection. Coincidentally, I am suffering a yeast overgrowth now as a result of Doxicyclene. In addition to Lactobacillus, I am taking garlic and spice bush tea from the back yard to curb the yeast.”

SPICEBUSH by Jim Duke (Written before his retirement almost twenty years ago)

Approaching retirement from the federal government, I am getting a bit more uninhibited about sounding off on one of my favorite themes, giving the herbal alternative a fair shake. Today, I’ll just talk about spicebush (Lindera benzoin), its culinary and folk medicinal uses, and its potential as a remedy for yeast (candidiasis), an ailment widely mentioned on TV today..

Spicebush is one of the commonest undershrubs in the forest around my place. And it has quite a bit of folklore about it. Still I don’t find reports on the chemicals which no doubt contribute to its aromatic, culinary, essential oil, medicinal, and pesticidal properties. We and the Asians have studied their species of Lindera while ignoring ours. And some American scientists, while busy studying alien species of Cocos, Cuphea, and Umbellularia as sources of lauric acid, ignore this copious resource in our back yards.

Is spicebush a food? Facciola (Cornucopia, Kampong Publ. Vista Ca. 1990) says:

“Young leaves, twigs, and fruits contain an aromatic oil and make a very fragrant tea. The twigs are best gathered when in flower as the nectar adds considerably to the flavor. Dried and powdered fruits can be used as a substitute for allspice. The new bark is pleasant to chew.”

King’s American Dispensatory (Eclectic Institute, Reprint 1984) says:

“The dried berries were used during the American Revolution and in the South during the late Rebellion as a substitute for allspice … The bark, in decoction, is said to be refrigerant and exhilarating, and exceedingly useful in all kinds of fever, for allaying excessive heat and uneasiness; a warm decoction is employed to produce diaphoresis. The decoction may be drunk freely.”

I quote these directly so you, and the FDA, may see that they have served as tea and spice for years. That puts them in the category I abbreviate GRAF, generally recognized as food.

In my Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants (Quarterman Publ., Licoln Mass. 1986), I mention that the Cherokee Indians used spicebush for blood disorders, cold, cough, croup, dysmenorrhea, hives, phthisis and swellings. Cherokee drank spicebush tea as a spring tonic, and steeped the bark with wild cherry and dogwood in corn whiskey to break out measles. Creek Indians used the teas for pains of rheumatism, (anodyne antirheumatic), for purifying the blood (depurative) and making themselves puke and sweat. (emetic and diaphoretic). Wisely they added willow to spicebush tea for drinking and using in the sweat lodges for rheumatism. The drug of choice today is still usually based on salicylates derived from willows. Ojibwa took the tea for anemia and that “tired rundown feeling”. Rappahannock used the tea for menstrual pain or delayed periods.

To these Moerman (Medicinal Plants of Native America. Mus. Anthropol., Tech Rept. 19. 1986), in his more extensive survey adds that the Cherokee also took the tea for hives (sometimes associated with yeast, JAD). Iroquois used it for colds, fevers, gonorrhea, measles, and syphilis. Mohegans chewed the leaves or took the tea for worms.

In their Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants (Houghton Miflin, Boston. 1990), Foster and Duke add that the settlers used the berries as a substitute for allspice. It’s not bad! Medicinally the berries were used as a carminative for flatulence and colic. The oil from the fruits was applied to bruises and muscles or joints for chronic rheumatism. The tea made from the twigs was popular with the settlers (and available all year) for colds, colic, fevers, gas, and worms. The bark tea was used for various fevers, including typhoid, and to expel worms.

In all that listing of applications, there’s not much folklore to anticipate that spicebush might be useful in yeast (candidiasis). But maybe the Indians didn’t have yeast. Apparently the yeast is a normal component of the flora of all human beings.

Maybe cadidiasis is mostly an iatrogenic ailment, induced by our medicines. Respected naturopaths, Murray and Pizzorno (Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Prima Publishing, Rocklin CA. 1991) say that when antibiotic use first became widespread, it was noted immediately that yeast infections increased. White man’s alcohol, anti-ulcer drugs, corticosteroids, increase in diabetes, oral contraceptives, tights insead or cotton undergarments, and too much sugar in the diet all may have contributed to the emergence of candidiasis as a major ailment, today afflicting half our womenfolk. The total incidence and relative frequency of vaginal candidiasis have increased more than two-fold since the late 1960’s.

There are a lot of synthetic alternatives for yeast, Nystatin, which is effective in mild cases. But Murray and Pizzorno suggest that garlic is more effective than Nystatin. I’d like to see the results of comparative heads-on trials between garlic, Nystatin and spicebush extracts. I’d like to see spicebush extracts compared also to Terazol, which reportedly leads to recovery of 95% of patients within three days. I’d like to see it compared with butacoconazole (Femstat), clotrimazole (Gyne-Lotrimin), ketoconazole (Nizoral) and miconazole (Monistat), all reportedly with an 80-90% cure rate. But the Graedons, after listing the latter four, reiterate the anecdote of the lady who had wasted $2,000 in office fees and medication, when a GP prescribed douching three times a day with 2 tablespoons vinegar in a quart of water (Graedons, 1991). That solved her $2,000 problem.

Studying 54 plant species for antimicrobial effects, Heisey and Gorham (1992; Letts. Appl. Microbiol. 14: 136-9.) found that extract of stem bark of Lindera benzoin (“spicebush”) strongly inhibited yeast (Candida albicans), much better than any of the other 53 species. (Walnut husks also showed some activity.). Now if vinegar could have saved that lady $2,000, might not a vinegar extract of spicebush bark and garlic be even better. Spicebush is best of the 54 studied. Garlic is reportedly better than Nystatin. I suspect that our mixture might be as safe and efficacious as any of the drugs names above, but we’ll never known.

You’ve seen the flurry of ads for expensive over-the-counter “remedies” for yeast. “See your doctor if you’re not sure. But if you’re sure you have yeast, use our brand.” Ten years ago, my doctor told me you couldn’t be sure without identification of the microorganisms involved. I doubt that has changed. Our FDA has become more relaxed in this regard. But if you started selling spicebush/garlic/vinegar for yeast, you’d be breaking the law, and the FDA might get you. But they won’t bother those OTC drugs because they have been proven safe and effective, to the FDA’s satisfaction, apparently. Are they more or less safe and efficacious than spicebush/garlic/vinegar? I don’t know. You don’t know. The FDA doesn’t know. The drug companies and physicians don’t know.

I want the best medicine for myself and my family. But nobody is going to invest $231 million to prove that spicebush/garlic/vinegar is safe and efficacious for vaginal candidiasis. Hence we’ll never know. Unless somehow, we convince some influential congressperson that no new drug for candidiasis should be permitted unless it is compared, not only to placebo, but to the best herbal alternative (s) as well. If the herbal alternative works safely, the world should know if. More than two-thirds of the world’s population and nearly a third of Americans can no longer afford the high-tech synthetic options. And their cost is going up at a much higher rate than other segments of our economy. So fewer and fewer of us can afford the modern pharmaceutical. And there’s no governmental or private incentive to investigate the cheap herbal alternatives, that may be as safe and efficacious.



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7 Responses to Spicebush – Ethnobotany and division of the flower sexes

  1. Michael Schenk says:

    Nice! Spicebush is one of my favorites. Another use: I throw green or wetted dry leaves and twigs onto charcoal for smoking meats while grilling. Excellent with grilled vegetables, pork or chicken. You can also use the berries for this. In about 15 years of doing this, I’ve observed no adverse reactions, but as Jim has pointed out, it’s always possible that some people are allergic.I’ve also heard that settlers used spicebush as an indicator plant. Since it thrives in rich soil, spicebush can indicate promising soil for agriculture.Happy Birthday, Jim!Mike

  2. Claire Hudson says:

    Wonderful! I enjoyed that!!! Oh how I wish I could be your apprentice!


  3. Kathy Gaita says:

    Happy Birthday wishes, Dr. Duke! Thank you for sharing your dedication and love of our healing plants and their precious beauty. Congratulations, -enjoy the wonder and awe. ❤

  4. Rande Nezezon ND says:

    Happy Birthday Dr. Duke! Thank you and your wife for your research and books which have given the public so much information on herbs and natural healing! Thanks for shining a light on the uses of natural choices and educating others on the many options to maintain our health! Stay well and keep making a difference for all us!

    Rande Nezezon ND

  5. bill pioch,lll says:

    Happy Birthday Dr Duke. Years ago you gave me a tape of great music by you and your friends. If there are any CD s around I would love to buy one. Bill

    On Apr 3, 2017 10:29 AM, “The Green Farmacy Garden” wrote:

    > greenfarmacy posted: “3 April 2017 ~ Jim’s ethnobotany of spicebush below > Helen’s observations. Traipsing through the lowland forest this past > weekend and even on the cold dreary days of last week, it was impossible to > miss hints lemon yellow glistening in the understory. Dra” >

  6. Thank you for the wonderful information. My husband is studying natural remedies. I found your article so interesting I linked it in my blog post

  7. Analise says:

    So, I am trying out the apple cider vinegar extract of garlic and spicebush bark. Nothing else has worked. It’s got three more weeks to process in my cabinet. Will post an update. Thank you!

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