The Planes of Benjamin

In the previous post I ruminated on the ostensible mystery of spring-blooming witch-hazel. I made that trip up Camel’s Hump in about 1984, a couple of years after I graduated from college. Coming out of school I knew my trees and my birds, but I can’t say I knew my shrubs that well.

I spent the summer after graduation on Great Brewster Island seven miles out from Boston on the cusp of Massachusetts Bay. I learned a lot more about shrubs and forbs that summer because I made it part of my job as park interpreter to catalog all the plants on the island. It was wasn’t very big, I was alone for days at a stretch with no interpretation responsibilities, and the vegetative communities were relatively simple because was a disturbed landscape stressed by exposure to rough weather and salt.

Then I went to grad school at NYU and took classes from Cal Heusser. Prof. Heusser (I don’t think I ever called him Cal) was palynologist, but he’d grown up in New Jersey botanizing with the Torrey Botanical Club (now Society). He’d been teenager in the early 1930s and spoke often of field trips he’d been on with naturalists whom he still held in some awe. Heusser had been born in 1914, so these older men (and some women, if I remember correctly) were genuine late Victorian field biologists, genuinely enamored of organisms and for whom diversity wasn’t just an idea, but a collection of well known particulars.

Lindera benzoin flowers

Lindera benzoin flowers

I learned my shrubs and a lot of herbaceous taxa in Heusser’s classes, but especially on his field trips. Then I moved to Massachusetts and wandered the Mount Toby range north of Amherst, state park land that hadn’t been disturbed since the early 19th century. It was the first fairly intact community that I explored with my enhanced knowledge: there were warblers in the trees and orchids on the ground. It wasn’t pristine, but it was mature, stable, and getting to be something like its pre-Columbian self.

But it was sometime in the early 1990s that I remember first being entranced by Lindera benzoin at the Thousand Acre Swamp, a Nature Conservancy property in Penfield, New York, just east of Rochester. I had seen and come to know Lindera in Massachusetts, but we happened to take a walk at Thousand Acre Swamp in very early spring, while there was still snow on the ground in March or early April.

Lindera in Thousand Acre Swamp

Lindera in Thousand Acre Swamp

Western New York has not been left undisturbed as long as most of rural New England. Many New Englanders abandoned their crummy, rocky farmland back east to move to the new frontier in the 1830s and 1840s, after the opening of the Erie Canal. So the upland surrounding Thousand Acre Swamp itself is still visibly and botanically recognizable as old farm land in my ways. But the plentiful L. benzoin was an indication that this land was on its way back to a semblance of its natural condition.

What struck me about the shrubs was there architecture. The flowers emerge well before the leaves do – well before any leaves on the surrounding vegetation – so if you lose sight of the bare branches in the confusion of the understory, the tiny yellow-green flowers appear to be floating in mid-air. The plant sends out branches alternately and as they subdivide toward their apical tips they arrange themselves in nearly flat planes. At Thousand Acre Swamp that early spring morning you could look through the woods for hundreds of yards in every directions and see small disks of yellow flowers suspended at several levels. When the flowers can between you and the dark trunk of a mature cherry or linden the color would flare out from the contrast.

The male and female flowers are held on different plants (dioecious) and in the late summer and into the early fall the female flowers become bright red berries (drupes), prized by all kinds of bird species. This combination of early spring flowers and fall berries (not to mention the yellow fall foliage) make a popular landscape plant.

Lindera benzoin berries

Lindera benzoin berries

The popular vernacular name for L. benzoin is spicebush, and the more esoteric one is Benjamin bush, but they both refer to the same quality. The entire shrub is suffused with an aromatic compound that smells like the resin of the Stryax genus of southeast Asia, which is harvested to make incense. The name given to it by Arabic traders was modified by their Catalan customers to benjawi (hence the “Benjamin” bush) and further modified in Latin to benzoë (hence the benzoin in its binomial).

Apparently the aroma can be faintly detected in the area around the shrub on warm days, but I’ve never noticed it. It is certainly there when you snap or crush the twigs. My eidetic memories of Lindera both include snow on the ground, so I didn’t smell much of anything. I say “both” because I am now pretty sure that what I thought was witch-hazel that on that early spring hike on Camel’s Hump was most certainly large, happy, and healthy spicebush. I will need to make another trip to find out.

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One Response to The Planes of Benjamin

  1. One utterly magical winter day, in the best year –the one we spent in Dutchess County–everything had been encased in ice– glittering in the sun & chiming when branch touched branch–and our friend told us that the twiggy little flowers sketched inside minute crystal balls were witch hazel.
    There’s a lovely watercolor of witch hazel by C Rennie Mackintosh

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