Plant of the Week
Range map of bog spicebush. States are colored green where the species may be found.
Bog Spicebush (Lindera subcoriaceae) female flowers. Southern Mississippi. Photo by Kenneth L. Gordon.
Bog Spicebush (Lindera subcoriaceae) male flowers. Southern Mississippi. Photo by Kenneth L. Gordon.
Bog Spicebush (Lindera subcoriaceae) fruit. Southern Mississippi. Photo by Kenneth L. Gordon.
Bog Spicebush (Lindera subcoriacea B.E. Wofford)
By Ken L. Gordon, Botanist, National Forests in Mississippi
Bog spicebush is a rare, recently described, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub to 4 meters tall. The bark is brownish-gray with numerous short, whitish lenticels. The bark when cut or crushed gives off the mixed odor of lemon and turpentine together. The mixed odor detected seems to be specific to the person smelling it. Some report almost no smell and others report different odors including lemon furniture polish with just a touch of black pepper. Dr. Wofford initially considered the specific epithet of inodora when considering names for the plant until he and others noticed the faint and variable odors described above. The relatively slender leaves are broader towards the rounded tip, bluish-green above, and very pale green and short hairy beneath. The leaves are somewhat leathery in texture (subcoriaceous) and appear after flowering. Tiny yellow-green flowers (males on one plant and females on another) are produced in clusters of 3 to 4 at the ends of distinct paired stalks originating from last years bud scars. Small bright red fruits about 10 mm long mature during late summer. Plants are often clonal and spread by suckering. It most closely resembles Lindera benzoin in the dull green upper surface of its leaves and the short stalks of its fruit (up to 4 mm long). The leaf texture tends to be thicker on bog spicebush, the apex not as pointed, the undersurface of the leaf paler, the venation more clearly reticulate, and the form of the plant either with the main stem spreading at about a 45 degree angle or somewhat zigzagging in dense shrubbery.
Its similarity to the more common spicebush prevented its recognition as a species until Dr. Wofford published his description of the new species in 1983. Earlier collections from south Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana had long been misidentified as Litsea aestivalis. Once that misidentification became known, there was a flurry of activity to determine its correct identity and determine its range. New locations in the Carolinas, panhandle of Florida and Virginia followed. There were intriguing reports from the pine barrens of New Jersey that have not been confirmed to date.
Bog spicebush occurs in the Coastal Plain from southeastern Virginia through the sandhills of the Carolinas; to Georgia where it is evidently very scarce, to the Florida Panhandle, south Alabama; infrequent in south Mississippi and rare in southeastern Louisiana. The plants occupy a relatively narrow ecological niche and have a correspondingly spotty distribution within the range. Due to its very narrow ecological niche, bog spicebush is very rare and local in occurrence.
Bog spicebush inhabits permanently moist to wet, shrub-dominated seepage wetlands, open, quaking bogs in pinelands, shrub thickets of seepages, usually near the heads of streams where peatmoss is abundant and along the banks of small braided streams. In the Deep South, it is usually not found outside of the wettest portions of rare sphagnous bog habitats. It is found on very acid soils that are high in organic matter and permanently saturated.
Bog spicebush can be extremely difficult to find in winter or summer, requiring almost a bush-by-bush inspection due to its general similarity to species of Ilex, Aronia, Cyrilla, Llyonia, Myrica, Vaccinium, etc. However, in the spring nothing else in its habitat combines such early blooming (mid-March) with the bright clusters of yellow flowers, in paired inflorescences along the twigs. Sassafras albidum can be found on adjacent uplands and flower at about the same time but it has a much larger inflorescence and it twigs have a much stronger “root beer” odor.
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