Virginia’s Native Allspice

This fall we noticed, for the first time, some bushes with bright red berries dotted across our nearby woods. Thanks to the reputation of hollies, poke berries, and other brightly colored inedible wild plants, my first thought was “poisonous!” But after doing some research, we have made quite a contrary discovery.

Say hello to spice bush, a member of the laurel family, fully native to Virginia and the eastern United States, and also known as “wild allspice.”

Break off a leaf or a twig and you’ll realize at once how it gets its name. It has a pungent fragrance that’s akin to a mix of pepper and nutmeg. Besides being used by the American Indians for medicinal purposes, early pioneers considered this plant an indicator of good agricultural land, since it often grows in rich moist soil. Our family decided to see what we could do with the berries, which are quite edible and taste like a concentrated version of how the bush smells. The bushes near our property are somewhere in size between a large bush and a sapling, are easy to pick, and bear plentifully in late August and early September. 

The berries themselves have very little flesh on them – mostly seed and skin. But we threw them in our handy dehydrator, and then ground them into powder in our coffee grinder. The result: our very own all-purpose spice – natural, free, and straight from our backyard.

So far, we are still in the experimentation phase with our new homegrown spice. We’ve tried it in granola, baked goods, and applesauce; in addition, we’ve used it, both ground and in berry form, to make a spice tea. All these experiments have yielded very positive results – although it takes some trial and error to figure out the proper amount to use for seasoning. The flavor can be overpowering in large quantities.

Since our original discovery, we’ve noticed spice bush growing in other wooded places in the area, especially near water. Besides its red berries in the early fall, it can be identified by pale yellow flowers in the spring. 

So, if you’re interested in foraging, exploration, or living off the land, use some early fall hikes as an excuse to scout out and gather your next batch of spices directly from the woods – from the beautiful, aromatic, and tasty spice bush, Virginia’s own native allspice!


Tim Carr

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