In many ways, March can be the most difficult month of the year for gardeners. It’s technically the beginning of spring, and stores are packed with pastel Easter baskets and clothing that makes you dream of gorgeous blooms in your garden beds. Unfortunately, it’s still cold and dreary for much of the month — and on an off year, will even snow.
Fortunately, you can plant some early-flowering shrubs to provide some much-needed color in very early spring while you wait for your bulbs and perennial flowers to awaken for the season. Spicebush is a great alternative to forsythia, and it’s a native shrub that provides food for both birds and butterflies — along with beautiful blossoms in spring and colorful leaves in the fall.
Growing Zones: 4-9
Bloom Time: clusters of pale, yellow-green blossoms in early spring; attractive yellow leaves and oblong red berries in fall
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Mature Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide
Notes: This shrub is native to the Midwest and provides a home to the larvae of spicebush swallowtail butterfly. When female plants are planted near a male pollinator, blossoms will turn into bright red berries for fall, which provide food for local birds. Spicebush gets its name from the aroma released when leaves are crushed, which is often described as combination of lemon and allspice.
Growing it in the Landscape
“Lindera obtusiloba” flowers best in full sun, but it will tolerate a good deal of shade. It will grow leggier in shady spots, and at least four hours of sunshine per day is required for good fall color. It prefers well-drained, acidic soil but can tolerate heavy clay. Spicebush grows naturally in both woodlands and along streams, making it a versatile choice for many areas of the landscape.
Once you’ve chosen a location, dig a hole that’s twice as big around as the root ball of the plant. Although these shrubs will tolerate clay soil, it’s a good idea to amend your planting area with compost to help aerate and fertilize your initial planting for good root development. Place the plant in the hole and backfill with compost and soil, planting at the same depth as it was in the container. Water well and consider mulching the planting area with compost or bark mulch, which will help add some acidity to the soil as it breaks down. If you’re planting a hedge of Spicebush, space plants 6 feet apart in full sun and 12 feet apart in shade.
Ongoing Care for Spicebush
Spicebush likes moist soil, so be sure to keep it well watered during its first season as it gets established. An inch of rain per week should be sufficient; irrigate if your natural rainfall isn’t enough. Once established, Spicebush is resistant to drought, insects, disease and even deer, making it one of the most carefree plants for your garden
Spicebush grows rapidly, particular in wet seasons. For this reason, you may need to prune it to keep an attractive shape. Prune branches after spring flowering to your taste, keeping in mind that Spicebush looks best with natural, arcing branches rather than an artificial boxy shape. After pruning each spring, you can add a balanced fertilizer or additional compost mulch to encourage growth and provide richer soil. Once Spicebush is established, you can enjoy year-round interest with this versatile, hardworking native shrub.