Journal archives for January 2021

January 06, 2021

Spicebush - Lindera benzoin

Edited 2/10/2022

I've spent quite some time now identifying Northern Spicebush. Here are my take-aways:
It is daunting because it has such a simple, basic leaf shape, and it feels like it can be confused with many things. And I guess it can... but generally if you have a couple of factors to go by you can get along. I still avoid identifying pictures of very young specimens where the leaves are small and the bark hasn't developed its speckles yet.
Mature Bark - light gray with white, oatmeal like speckles on it, very characteristic
Older twigs - a similar light gray with speckles but they don't look as pronounced usually
New twigs - pale clear green. It seems that these have all turned to gray by August/September, although I'll have to see if I can find any evidence for them outside of the Spring/Early summer time frame.
Flower Buds - sessile and sporadic along the twigs. Some seem fat and cabbage like, and I wonder if these are the males. Others are small and pointed. Of course, there is always the possibility of variable like light, genetics or moisture that affects plants, but I'd really like to see if I could sex Spicebush by bud shape.
Flowers - easy to ID - sessile like the buds, tiny, and yellow, 6 petaled. The males are very obvious with a clear picture - you can see the pollen structures with two yellow balls on each appendage. Females are less obvious to me but look for pistils.. they are more obvious after the flower starts to degrade a bit.
Leaf buds - Tiny and growing close along the stem. Some seem to look like black ticks nestled in the leaf axils. There seems to be some variation though.. more research needed. I can see some from my home observation and the leaf buds are clearly leafing out but the black buds are not... is that where the new branches stem from? or is that part of the leaf scar? or am I crazy?
Leaf scars - not very noticeable, tiny. a low, U shape with 3 bundle scars, it seems. I should check my book to make sure.
Leaves - pale green, thin. Oval when small but grows more acuminate when mature. Often munched (look for Spicebush swallowtails). As mentioned below, the angle at which they come off the stem seems particularly distinguishable, maybe more so than the shape. It is said that Southern Spicebush has drooping or downward hanging leaves, while Northern Spicebush holds the leaves out perpendicular. The budding leaves stab upwards in the spring with a bit of a keeled look, however - generally you also have some flowers at this time as well so it gives you two factors to ID from. The fall coloration is yellow, so you can rule out any turning red or orange.
Fruit - I think of them as "Spice Drops" because they are oblong. They are smooth and unmarked if you have a good specimen. they are attached to a green, peg like stem and like the flowers, grow along the twigs.
Scent - if you are there, scratch the bark and smell, or crush a bit of leaf. They have a distinguishable spicy smell. But until iNat implements smell-o-vision, this doesn't always help.

This observation mentions how to tell the difference between commonly confused species with regards to flowers: where rherold says
"There are three common yellow flowered shrubs/trees in this area whose flowers are easily confused: Cornus mas, Lindera benzoin, and Sassafras albidum. Cornus mas is not native, but has become naturalized in some areas.

Looking at the flowers only, since they're in most iNat pics (pardon my ignorance of proper terminology):

Cornus mas has four parted flowers (4 petals, etc) on skinny, long pedicels, perhaps 10 to 20 per inflorescence. The inflorescence has four bracts at the base, and is usually on a stubby branchlet. Cornus officinalis from east Asia is very similar.

Lindera benzoin has six parted sessile flowers (no pedicel), typically less than 10 per inflorescence. The inflorescense is attached directly to the sides of a branch with little or no 'branchlet'.

Sassafras albidum also has six parted flowers, with long branched pedicels, with 10 to 20 per inflorescence. They are typically on the tip of a branch. It tends to bloom a bit later than the previous two.

Numbers are approximate, your mileage may vary."

When looking at the leaves only, there are a long list of confused species, especially those with red berries. Most of these can be reasonably excluded because they are opposite or dentate. Ones that cause me some concern are:
sassafras (Sassafras albidum) - mostly it can be excluded because there are mitten and 3-fingered leaves mixed in, but it seems like I've seen some young examples with simple leaves much like spicebush. It is in the same family, and there is some resemblance. Looks like sassafras with simple leaves has a blunter apex and a thicker look to the leaf.
The new flowering branches seem to have a muddy green color to them.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) - these leaves seem somewhat weightier towards the end, kind of teardrop shaped, but with a point. The stems seem thicker and slightly winged? However it seems like they could be easily confused with spicebush.

Tupelo - leaves are leathery and usually have some red coloration in the stem. If there are fruits that's a giveaway. They are usually 2 or three stuck together, some will usually be stunted. They are pale green that mature into blue-black. Bark is blocky in older specimens, rugged in younger ones, and will lack the speckled appearance of Spicebush.

Sweet leaf (Symplocos tinctoria) leaves grow outwards in all directions, while spicebush grows at an angle to the stem up the stem. stems are yellower - spicebush has light green stems and veining.

Carolina Buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana) - occurs in the Southeast. leaf shape resembles spicebush, but arrangement on twigs is in all directions, leaves seem deeper green, and the twig seems reddish brown and hairy. Should not be an issue in PA. I recently saw a specimen further South that was mididentified as Spicebush. I don't know what it was, but I could just tell. It was particularly obvious from the fruits that were very round and in the leaf axils, but even the leaves themselves seemed to have a very flat, glossy look that seemed wrong for spicebush.

California sweetshrub (Calycanthus occidentalis) - great confounder, but shouldn't occur outside of the CA area. I should go through these periodically and see if spicebush has been misidentified to this. After review, it seems like it is cultivated (or cultivated and escaped) often in the eastern US. note - leaves are opposite.
***Edit: There is also a Carolina sweetshrub that is native to PA and surrounding area. However this is easy to differentiate.... leaves are opposite! It is more likely California sweetshrub was this and misidentified.... I can see how one can make the mistake!
Similar to above, Lonicera is often mistakenly identified as spicebush but will have opposite leaves. The fruits have a translucent quality and are often in 2's or 4's, and they have a black "belly button" at the bottom of the fruit - I'm sure there's a more technical term for this but I don't know what it is. Spicebush fruit is unmarked.
Ilex will also get mixed in, particularly Winterberry - that can be identified by its dentate leaves.

As I start identifying Lindera further south, I'm always worried I will encounter bog Spicebush or Southern Spicebush and accidentally lump it in. I still don't have a good way to differentiate Bog Spicebush which apparently exists as far north as Virginia. However, after some reading, I figure that probably the only Bog Spicebush will be found by informed people who deliberately seek it out in peat bogs and identify it as such... it is a very rare plant.

A bit about southern spicebush - apparently both sides of the leaves are dark green and they droop.It only grows to about 6 ft tall.

Posted on January 06, 2021 04:04 PM by aphili8 aphili8 | 2 comments | Leave a comment