Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Spice Bush and Witch Hazel
Nature Bulletin No. 341-A   April 19, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt of Conservation

Two aromatic shrubs add cheery spots of color among our woodlands when they are otherwise drab and bare. Both have long been used for medicinal purposes. The Spice Bush or Benjamin Bush, which blooms early in spring, bears clusters of tiny yellow flowers along its twigs and these flowers have a spicy odor. Its bark has a piquant flavor. The Witch Hazel bursts into an abundance of yellow bloom in October and November when other shrubs and trees are shedding their foliage, its own leaves are yellow and falling, and when its branches are still laden with last year's fruit. Few woody plants are so "contrary".

The spice bush, also called Wild Allspice and Fever Bush, is scattered throughout the eastern United States. It seems to prefer damp woodlands or thickets in swampy ground, and sometimes reaches a height of 15 feet. This and another American species, the Downy Fever Bush which extends as far north as southern Illinois, are members of the Laurel Family that includes such aromatic trees and shrubs as sassafras, cinnamon, camphor, bay, avocado, and the true laurel. During the Civil War, soldiers brewed tea from the leathery leaves and the greenish rubbery twigs of the Benjamin bush. Oil of benzoin, or "benjamin", was extracted from it for home remedies but most commercial benzoin is now made from plants such as the sweet gum tree, a relative of the witch hazel. Long ago, woodsmen learned that spice bush is one of the few hardwoods which burn readily when green. The little flowers lack petals but each has six lemon yellow sepals and they are clumped in clusters which, with the fruit, make it an ornamental shrub. The fruit, which ripens in autumn and clings on through winter, is a bright red oval berry, rich in oil and highly scented.

Witch Hazel, which may become a small tree 20 feet high, is found in forest edges or along stream banks in the central and eastern United States. It is numerous along the North Branch of the Chicago River in our Harms Woods preserve, and in various parts of Illinois as far south as Peoria. In northern regions it is the only native woody plant that bears flowers and matures fruit at the same time. Of the three American and three Asiatic species, the Chinese, Japanese and the Vernal Witch Hazel of south central United States bloom during January, February and March.

The common witch hazel has large oval leaves with wavy margins and prominent veins, a queer sickle-shaped terminal bud, and peculiar yellow flowers that appear in bright yellow clusters. Each has four twisted ribbon-like petals which, before opening, are tightly coiled like watch springs inside a bud no larger than a birdshot. Last year's nuts, ripening at this same time, look like grotesque monkey faces with staring eyes. When they pop open the two shiny black seeds may be catapulted 30 feet away. From the Indians, who used the dry powdered leaves to stop bleeding, the early settlers learned to distill all parts of the plant and obtain an astringent for healing cuts, bruises, in-named eyes and skin. Diluted with alcohol, it is still widely used by athletes and as a lotion. For centuries, a forked twig of witch hazel has been preferred as a divining rod by dowsers - persons supposedly gifted with a mysterious power to locate underground water, precious metals, or hidden treasures.

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