Red, ripe spiceberries

Appalachian Spiceberry Harvest

There’s an Appalachian spice berry tree at the edge of the woods near our house, and dozens more in the forest itself. Lindera benzoin, also called the Appalachian allspice (or spicebush), is a small understory tree with bush-like habits. They bear Tic Tac-sized red berries in the fall that are juicy and filled with the flavor of vanilla, clove, pepper, and citrus. Foragers and mountain people gush about these berries. I’ve made tea from the twigs before, but wanted to catch a berry harvest so that I could see what all the excitement was about. So this week Lance and I set out to find the best spice berries on the mountain.

One of many spiceberry trees in our woods
One of many spicebush trees in our woods. This one is right next to the house.

To get a spice berry harvest, you have to have both male and female trees, and only the females bear fruit. Even though they are an understory tree, they do need some sun. And since the small tree right by our house hasn’t had berries until this year (and we’ve only found ONE berry on it—this was how we knew it was harvest time), we think it might be a younger female tree, and suspect they have to come to a certain age before fruiting.

Right now the trees are easy to see, because their leaves are all turning a brilliant yellow. The maples are bright yellow right now, too, but they are much taller trees, and easy to identify by their leaves.

So we grabbed a foraging bucket, whistled up the cats (and dog), and set out looking for small yellowing understory trees that might be getting enough sunshine to bear fruit. Field edges and open meadows were on our watchlist.

You can see the spiceberries better from underneath
You can see the spiceberries better from underneath

And we didn’t have to hike too far. We identified many spice bush trees, but once we headed toward the Jack Field (where the daffodil spring head is), we saw two bushy, bright trees about 15 feet tall. Lance had brought clippers to cut our way through brambles, but I made my way to the eastern-most tree first: no berries. Probably a male, but this boded well for the other tree, which Lance was clipping a narrow path toward.

Pippi helps me look for berries
Pippi helps me look for berries

And sure enough, there were enough spice berries on the other tree to give us plenty to harvest. The berries grow in singles, doubles, and the occasional group of three of four. It’s not like picking blueberries—you’ll put in more work to get far fewer berries. But this is a spice, so you aren’t going to eat handfuls of them. We picked about a half cup or so and headed home, with only a few bramble scratches.

Spiceberries in my bucket
Spiceberries in my bucket
Petting Pippi under the Spiceberry tree
Petting Pippi under the Spiceberry tree (Bee and Rocky were there too)

I washed my spice berries, sorted out all the twigs and stems (and a few wispy, confused spider-hitchhikers), and spread them out on foil to dry at low heat (175°) in the oven for about 4 hours. The house smelled amazing.

Now I have a little mason jar filled with my dried berries, and have ordered a peach-spiceberry pie from Lance. I have high hopes! Meanwhile, I plan to grind a few (I use a coffee grinder) to whip into my next coconut-milk and coffee latte. I expect that will turn out like a chai, which is good by me.

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