The maples are budding, daffodils and forsythia are in bloom and the weather is mercurial – must be Spring in the mid-Atlantic! (Who am I kidding, our weather is always mercurial.)
Most plants are still brown and lifeless, but the occasional splashes of color inspired me to go spicebush hunting. One foraging book nicknamed it “forsythia of the forest” because its yellow blooms arrive in early spring. I figured the spicebush (Lidera benzoin) would stand out against the muted brown backdrop of the local woods.
Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t see any yellow for all the … green? Turns out that another forage-worthy shrub is also coming out of dormancy at this early date: autumn olive, aka Japanese silverberry (Eleaganus umbellata). Everywhere I looked, my attention was drawn to the bright grassy color of new autumn olive leaves. This invasive species had apparently moved in and made this area its new home. Which meant I had to get up close and personal to make sure I could tell the difference between spicebush and autumn olive.
Here’s what I found out.
Both of plants feature multiple stems growing from the ground as part of one “shrub”. However it wasn’t clear in either case if these were individual plants that just grew together, or separate stems from a single plant. They also both have silver gray bark. In the winter, they would be especially hard to tell apart. Both produce edible fruit in the fall, which is the easiest time to distinguish them from one another. The spicebush fruit (primarily used for seasoning rather than eating straight) is a bright red, large berry that stands out against the dark green foliage. (Spicebush Photos) Autumn olive berries are also red, but small and speckled. (Autumn Olive Photos) The tart berries can be eaten raw, although the seeds make up the majority of the size so it’s not much fun. Alternatively the berries can also be processed through a food mill for pulp, or juiced. (Because autumn olives are invasive, picking the fruit and carefully disposing of the seeds so they don’t spread further could be considered community service!)
Generally speaking, spicebush appears to prefer growing in mature woods, under the canopy of tall hardwoods like hickory, oak and beech. By contrast I found autumn olive more frequently along the perimeter of wooded areas, along roadsides, or in open fields. If you drive anywhere in the piedmont region of Maryland right now and see “something” greening up under the trees along the roadsides, it’s most likely autumn olive. Although don’t look while you are actually driving, please – keep your eyes on the road!
In terms of height, spicebush only grows to about 12 ft (2 m) tall, whereas autumn olive can reach the height of a small tree, around 20 ft (6 m). Autumn olive also appears to have a much wider profile, as its branches tend to arch out more than spicebush (although this seems to vary).
Up close, the springtime differences between the two were more obvious. The spicebush buds are frilly looking yellowish flowers, whereas the autumn olive “buds” are leaves with reddish speckled undersides. Speaking of speckles, I noticed that the gray bark of the spicebush is sprinkled with lighter dots. The autumn olive bark is also dotted, but less dramatically than the spicebush bark.
Final remarks: spicebush twigs and leaves have the same aromatic flavor as the berries. If you are 100% sure of your identification, you can break off a dead twig and nibble it for the flavor, or collect several to brew a chai-like tea. NEVER NIBBLE A PLANT IF YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS ABOUT WHAT IT IS. I.e., don’t nibble the twig to confirm that it is spicebush. Also don’t take any twigs that are clearly alive and growing. That’s just rude.
And for the record: by the end of April, there will be ZERO doubt which shrubs are autumn olive. They produce clusters of white flowers that smell AMAZING if you get anywhere near them.