In mid-April, I got a tip from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, that he’d come across a yellow haze floating above the ground in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Ben identified it as a large colony of Spicebush (Lindera bezoin), the biggest number of these shrubs together that he had ever seen. That was enough enticement for me to don my hiking shoes and head out the door!
Ben gave me rough directions – head west into the woods from the north fenced wetland until you come to several vernal pools where the land begins to rise. No trails exist in that very wet woods, so I hopped over rivulets, climbed over logs, skirted small vernal pools and finally saw a yellow band of light in the distance. Once I got closer, I was enchanted. A wide arc of soft yellow floated and nodded against a cold, gray sky, like a gentle golden light in a dim room.
I’d seen photos of Spicebush flowers but never seen them myself. As I came closer to the bushes, I realized that thousands of tiny yellow puffball blossoms along hundreds of Spicebush branches were the source of the golden cloud.
Of course, I had to learn more about this native shrub! Those tiny yellow blossoms, looking much like well-buttered popcorn, evidently smell sweet. Drat! I’d neglected to sniff them! And when crushed, their scent is described as aromatic and spicy, hence its name. In moist understory, they most often multiply from their roots as they did in this location, forming large colonies.
Before I ever saw this native shrub, I had seen a creature which counts on it to raise its young – the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus). This dark swallowtail can be mistaken for the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) or the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). The field marks that identify them for me are the blue blush on the top (dorsal) side of the hind wings and a double row of orange spots on the hind wings’ lower (ventral) side. According to Wikipedia, the males do a lively courtship dance for the females which I’d dearly love to witness! Maybe I’ll catch the performance here when the weather warms up.
Female Spicebush Butterflies are wildly attracted to Spicebush and lay their eggs on the leaves more often than on other shrubs. Once hatched, a small, brown first instar is protected from predators by closely resembling bird droppings! The tiny caterpillar chews into the leaf, settles on its midrib,and exudes some silk. As the silk dries, it curls the leaf around the caterpillar, providing daytime protection; the caterpillar exits its tubular abode to eat, but only at night.
The later instars use much more dramatic mimicry to avoid predators like birds, dragonflies and spiders. These larger caterpillars turn green and orange and have a design on their thorax that makes them look something like a snake. To add to the effect they have an osmeterium, a structure on the first sections of the thorax that they can raise to look like the forked tongue of a snake! (Check out the link!) They then move to the lower branches of the Spicebush to spin a silk pupa.
Many thanks to the inaturalist.org photographers below who shared their photos, since I’ve yet to spot a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. These butterflies generally produce three generations each year, so I’ll be looking for them along with the dancing males!
On my way into and out of the woods, I came across a wonderful collection of early spring woodland wildflowers. Many of our forest wildflowers have been decimated by White-tailed Deer(Odocoileus virginianus), so seeing large patches of Spring Beauty, sunshine spots of Marsh Marigolds and other native flowers sent me home with a smile.
When I returned to the woods ten days later, the golden haze had disappeared and the glorious Spicebush colony had become just another green-leaved denizen of the woods. But soon the first butterflies will appear. They’ll flutter and forage in the woods and the fields beyond. And we can hope that they’ll leave behind some young to keep the life cycle going. I’m cheered on a gray spring day that this native shrub thrives at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and that its golden haze will host its namesake butterflies for years to come.