Thursday, August 7, 2008

Woodland Spice and the Hophornbeam Tree

(The information provided on this page is informational only, and not intended to promote or recommend any medicinal or food use of the plants described)
I love the name of this tree! I mean, who would come up with something like Hophornbeam? Apparently no one is sure of the source of its name, since two online sources attribute it to English (beam being a British word for wood, according to that source), and to the Germans (horn meaning strong). The Hops is easy to understand--look at its flowers below, and you can see the similarity to hops.

Hophornbeam tree in flower.

Photo of hops, from Wikipedia.

Another relative of this tree is the ironwood (carpinus caoliniana). This tree has distinctive bark that has a pronounced muscular appearance. It lives up to its name, too. Try to cut a small ironwood tree with a chainsaw and you will likely dull your chain; cut it with a handsaw and you can expect to be there for quite some time, and probably will feel like you'll never finish the job. We once used a piece of ironwood for our mailbox post. Thirty years later, it's still standing.


Spicewood is one of my favorite woodland plants. An understory shrub that prefers wet creek banks and moist shady woods, spicewood is often overlooked because it's not a particularly showy plant. But pick a leaf and crush it in your hand and you will discover the reason for the shrub's name. A sweet, spicy odor, similar to allspice, will delight your nose.

A branch of spicewood.

Spicewood doesn't have a showy bloom either. Small yellow flower clusters become green berries in summer, then turn to bright red in autumn.

Spicewood berries.

Once, just a few years after moving to our farm, I got very ill with a high fever. I'd taken all the aspirin I felt was safe, and not even cool compresses or a lukewarm shower brought the fever under control. I remember reading in Euell Gibbon's book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, that spicewood leaves could be brewed into a tea that was supposed to break a fever. I sent my husband to the woods and when he brought back the leaves, I made tea.

It worked. The fever broke as I sipped the spicy drink. Was it the tea that broke the fever, or was it a coincidence? I don't know for sure, but I feel certain it was the tea. Another name for the bush, after all, is feverbush. It's also referred to as Benjamin Bush, perhaps derived from its Latin name, Lindera Benzoin. (This bush is not, however the source of natual benzoin, which is derived from Asian trees of the genus Styrax.)

Early settlers dried the red spicewood berries and ground them for use as allspice. I tried that once, and the result was a flavorful spice, not quite like allspice but certainly similar.

Some websites I've read recommend making tea from the branches and roots of the spicewood. That makes sense because this shrub is a relative of sassafras (and also of witchhazel and hazelnut). I've never tried to use the roots or twigs for tea myself.

Spicewood grows throughout the eastern states. Try to find it if you find yourself along a mountain stream or in deep woods. The telltale scent of the leaves will not leave you in doubt that you've located spicewood.

A side note: early pioneer women used dried sassafras roots as a moth deterrent, packing a few roots between blankets and clothing to deter moths. I think that might actually work. I've used the roots myself as a drawer freshener, similar to cedar blocks.


Foster, Steven M. and James A. Duke. Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Gibbons, Euell. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. NY: David McKay Co, Inc, 1962.

Saunders, Charles. Useful Wild Plants, 1920. Available online at:

Cook County Illinois Nature Bulletin: bioimages at:

Whisker, Vaughn. Tales from the Allegheny Foothills.


City Mouse said...

Interesting stuff ... I'm going to have to look 'em up and see if we have any of these trees in the far north. Ironwood sounds familiar.

Matthew Burns said...

Love the line in the Billy Ed Wheeler song Coal Tattoo, "Got a back like an Ironwood bent by the wind and blood veins as blue as the coal".

Granny Sue said...

I do too, Matthew. And anyone who knows ironwood knows what that line means.

I love the whole song, actually. It's pure poetry.

deborah wilson said...

Interesting post, Sue. I've never heard of Spicewood, but I'll be on the lookout whenever I'm in the woods. This post is a keeper for my files.

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