A Spice You Can Find In Your Backyard

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Photo by Daniel Fromson


I am an incurable forager: a fiddlehead fanatic and an unlicensed digger of quahogs, the kind of person who, at an early age, once ran away from home because my mom wouldn't let me sauté a painstakingly gathered handful of Cinnabar-red Chanterelles. So, naturally, having recently moved to Washington, D.C., I decided to take a trip to the northern fringe of the District's Rock Creek Park. The reason for my journey? I had heard that the woods were full of ripe red spicebush berries, and I was set on mashing some up to season a hearty fall dinner: pork chops with apple-spicebush chutney.

I'd never tasted a spicebush berry before, and I wasn't sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As a friend of mine put it, "spicebush" sounds like something dreamed up by Dr. Seuss. In fact, the plant is a striking shrub that grows about ten feet tall, with glossy emerald leaves that begin to turn golden around the time its resinous berries ripen. A member of the laurel family--which also includes cinnamon, sassafras, and the bay laurel, from which bay leaves are harvested--it thrives from Maine to Michigan and south to Texas, and even in New York's Central Park. Visually distinctive and nearly ubiquitous, the spicebush is an ideal target for novice foragers. Nowadays, it is more likely to appear in a dusty botanical guide than on someone's plate, but colonial Americans devoured it.

During the Revolutionary War, New Englanders clung to their favorite recipes by substituting dried, powdered spicebush berries for allspice, which they could no longer import from British-held Jamaica. Westbound pioneers used the plant's bark instead of cinnamon. Spicebush tea was the beverage of choice for coffee-deprived Civil War soldiers. Even George Washington was a fan. He believed that the spicebush, which usually grows in the moist soil near rivers and streams, was a sign of fertile land.

The berry was bitter and slightly oily, with a warm, spicy flavor that was hard to identify, although sassafras and allspice seemed close.

The plant's historical appeal intrigued me, but history was also a source of concern. The pinnacle of American spicebush consumption may have been Ohio's famine of 1790, when homesteaders also subsisted on nettles and the tops of potato plants. Our first president's fandom notwithstanding, cooking with spicebush seemed a bit like the seasoning equivalent of coping with a shortage of wild game by eating one's tri-corner hat.

I also knew that spicebush tea had often served as an early medicine. This fact seemed benign until I read an 1846 treatise by George Barrell Emerson of the Massachusetts Zoological and Botanical Survey. He wrote, "In Pennsylvania, a decoction of the branches is often used as a medicinal drink for horned cattle in the spring of the year."

Nonetheless, as I approached a trailhead near Rock Creek Park's Washington/Maryland border, a plastic shopping bag lining my backpack, I tried to think happy thoughts of allspice and cinnamon--not Dimetapp for cows. It was a warm October afternoon, and sunlight filtered through the forest canopy in patches, illuminating a quilt of fallen leaves. I was reminded that the appeal of foraging lies not only in the thrill of plucking something mysterious and edible from the wild but also in the simple peace of a walk in the woods. The hum of traffic faded into the distance, replaced by the rustle of branches tossed by the breeze and the occasional shuffle of robins in the undergrowth.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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