Friendlier Alternative to Forsythia

By Pam Denholm.

We have had to do some serious work on the little patch of earth we call home. The person who lived here before us didn’t believe in transfer stations or trash removal – he buried it, burned it or hid piles of it in blackberry thickets. We have disposed of everything from beer cans, bean cans, paint cans, tons of burnt melted plastic that used to be who knows what, and every time there is a big storm some little thing sticks out of the ground that usually takes about four hours to dig up (old tires, hose pipes, mesh fencing – even a car bumper). So we have cleared, dug, leveled, and disposed for the last five years, and we have pruned and removed trees. In the shed we found ‘garden’ chemicals that would make any organic farmer cringe, and oh, what used to be their ½ acre vegetable garden? Well we let it rest, but nothing, not even grass has grown there properly in the last five years.


Last year was the first year that we stopped clearing, started adding compost and planting. I drew up a rough plan that includes a border of pretty yellow forsythia along a fence, but when I did some homework, I actually found that it is considered an invasive species. I will plant species that are not native, but my rule is they have to play nicely with others and apparently forsythia likes to hog the playground and push other kids off the swings.

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 6.13.17 AM

Spicebush in early spring, photo by infamous forager Steve Brill:

I found a website that recommended a native alternative, Spicebush. Here’s what I found out:

  • They display pretty greeny-yellow flowers early in the spring, much like the Forsythia, and the blooms are fragrant and will attract early bees to your garden
  • They are disease, pest and deer resistant
  • They grow to around 8-12ft tall, also much like the forsythia, and are a bush that can be trimmed into a hedge if desired
  • In addition to pretty flowers in the spring, it offers bright red berries in the summer and early fall, and then gives a beautiful display as the leaves all turn from green to bright yellow
  • It is also host to two specific butterflies, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and the Spicebush Swallowtail. If Ii understand correctly, the Spicebush Swallowtail has two generations a year between April and October
  • If you crush or scratch the twigs, it releases a lemony-spicy fragrance
  • It grows bright scarlet berries in the summer, considered inedible because they are mostly made up of one large seed, but the ripe berries chopped up make a superb seasoning something similar to allspice so rinse them, pat them dry and pop them in a blender or grinder to use in your kitchen, the berries don’t dry well, so if you love them and want to store them, chop them up and freeze them
  • The berries ripen alongside early apples, and were often used in the same pot for pies, compotes etc.
  • Spicebush makes a good cup of tea. One cup of water with half a cup of fresh leaves and two tablespoons of chopped berries and you are good to go. You can also just steep some of the twigs
  • The Native Americans used a spiceberry infusion for coughs and colds and used the oil from the berries externally for chronic arthritis
  • The leaf, berries or bark were used in a compress for skin irritations such as rashes, itching and bruises
  • Apparently, it was also used in yesteryear to tenderize game meat, or to tenderize the meat of an old rooster
  • It is a member of the laurel family (prestigious since it is laurel that was worn as a crown as a symbol of strength, victory and honor)

I have ordered 8 spicebush plants for my border – my next planting will be in May and I am looking at Serviceberry (aka Shadbush) trees instead of an ornamental pear.

Pam Denholm is owner of South Shore Organics in Hanover. 


About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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5 Responses to Friendlier Alternative to Forsythia

  1. Barbara Heikkila says:

    Where can I find this? I’d love to have it in my new home landscape

    • lauriejhepworth says:

      Call your local garden center and ask. They should be able to order it if it’s not in stock.

  2. Pam Denholm says:

    No rest for the wicked for sure! I would love it if at least a little of what was buried in our yard was ‘treasure’ rather than trash. We did however find two antique plows in some undergrowth (at least I didn’t have to dig them out). Sorry you had to go through the same, but I am very glad i am not alone 😉

  3. Pingback: Friendlier Alternative to Forsythia | All about Gluten Free cooking & living!

  4. hippyma says:

    Great post, I did not now that about Forsythia! I’m definitely going to look for the Spicebush, sounds amazing!! Also sounds like we share extremely similar previous owners to our properties, we have found real estate signs (neither were agents, so that was a surprise), tons of house waste, bricks, slate, football helmets, also a car bumper & an engine hidden in our yard! Of course now that all that has been dug up, we need to add some clean fill & new planting as well to even out the yard again. We’ve added compost, free-range organic chickens (which have eaten the grubs, so that’s great), and garden (organic, chemical free) beds ad well. No rest for the wicked, right?

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