Nice cup of spicebush tea

By Jim McGuire - Contributing columnist

A favorite snapshot was taken in 1969, during a weeklong fishing expedition to Tycoon Lake, down near Gallipolis. A friend and I were investigating whispered tales of gargantuan red-ears and bluegill…rumors which, astonishingly, proved true!

While I won’t dwell on how much younger we both looked in that vintage black-and-white photo, I will emphatically tell you the tin cups we each held while grinning at the camera contained spicebush tea.

How can I possibly recall such an esoteric fact?

Well, because earlier that morning, as I fried up a heaping platter of succulent fresh sunfish, my companion spotted a nearby shrub. Snapping off a big handful of twig tips, he tossed them—leaves and all— into a pot of hot water. After a few minutes of steeping, he poured two mugs, added sugar, then handed me one.

“Here,” he said, “drink this.” Wow! I grew up amongst a family of foragers. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles on both sides were all lifelong and ardent tote-sack gatherers of wild eats. We picked, dug and collected everything— berries, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, greens, plus assorted barks, leaves, roots and bud tips for making teas, both medicinal and sipping.

Yet I’d never heard a word about spicebush tea!

That Tycoon Lake cup was my introduction—and why I remember. I instantly became an enthusiast. Throughout the duration of our fishing foray, I insisted on making and quaffing pot after pot—morning, noon and night.

Spicebush is a common plant throughout the Midwest. A member of the laurel family, it grows up to a dozen feet tall. Spicebush likes rich, damp, partially shaded soils, and is often found along streams or near lakes.

In early spring, before the leaves appear, spicebush sports tiny but fragrant yellow flowers. Come fall, spicebush produces clusters of hard, oval-shaped red berries which give the plant its name. These berries—dried and chopped, ground, or left whole—make a zesty, allspicelike seasoning for various dishes.

Spicebush tea—which has a wonderful spicy tang with just a hint of lemon—can be made from the berries, leaves or twigs. About a teaspoon of dried berries, or half a cup of leaves or twigs per cup, is about right. This latitude in tea-making materials also means you can gather the goods to make tea year around.

Personally, regardless of season, I prefer spicebush tea made from twigs. I’d rate it second—behind sassafras—as my favorite of all “wild” teas. I often snip bundles of spicebush twigs. Dried and stored in jars or plastic bags, they make an excellent fall and winter drink.

When I came across that old photo the other morning, I realized it had been quite a while since I’d last savored spicebush’s unique taste. So I temporarily halted my woodcutting endeavors, donned hip boots, and sloshed over a shallow riffle on the Stillwater to the wooded island across from the cottage to where a handy supply of spicebush grows. I soon collected sufficient cuttings for several pots of tasty tea.

Later, gazing again at the photograph while sipping my drink, I lifted the cup in a warm though bittersweet toast—to an old friend, now gone and sorely missed…and to the enduring joy of spicebush tea.

By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

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