This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Before the leaves, lemon yellow, fragrant, small, in clusters close to the slender, brittle twigs. Six petal-like sepals; sterile flowers with 9 stamens in 3 series; fertile flowers with a round ovary encircled by abortive stamens. Stem: A smooth shrub 4 to 20 ft. tall. Leaves: Alternate, entire, oval or elliptic, 2 to 5 in. long. Fruit: Oblong, red, berry-like drupes.
Preferred Habitat - Moist woodlands, thickets, beside streams.
Flowering Season - March - May.
Distribution - Central New England, Ontario, and Michigan, southward to Carolina and Kansas.
Even before the scaly catkins on the alders become yellow, or the silvery velvet pussy willows expand to welcome the earliest bees that fly, this leafless bush breathes a faint spicy fragrance in the bleak gray woods. Its only rivals among the shrubbery, the service-berry and its twin sister the shad-bush, have scarcely had the temerity to burst into bloom when the little clusters of lemon-yellow flowers, cuddled close to the naked branches, give us our first delightful spring surprise. All the favor they ask of the few insects then flying is that they shall transfer the pollen from the sterile to the fertile flowers as a recompense for the early feast spread. Inasmuch as no single blossom contains both stamens and pistil, little wonder the flowers should woo with color and fragrance the guests on whose ministrations the continuance of the species absolutely depends. Later, when the leaves appear, we may know as soon as we crush them in the hand that the aromatic sassafras is next of kin.
But ages before Linnaeus published "Species Plantarum " butterflies had discovered floral relationships.
Sharp eyes may have noticed how often the leaves on both the spice-bush and the sassafras tree are curled. Have you ever drawn apart the leaf edges and been startled by the large, fat green caterpillar, speckled with blue, whose two great black "eyes " stare up at you as he reposes in his comfortable nest - a cradle which also combines the advantages of a restaurant? This is the caterpillar of the common spice-bush swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio troilus), an exquisite, dark, velvety creature with pale greenish-blue markings on its hind wings. (See Dr. Holland's "Butterfly Book," Plate XLI.) The yellow stage of this caterpillar (which William Hamilton Gibson calls the "spice-bush bugaboo") indicates, he says, that "its period of transformation is close at hand. Selecting a suitable situation, it spins a tiny tuft of silk, into which it entangles its hindmost pair of feet, after which it forms a V-shaped loop about the front portion of its body, and hangs thus suspended, soon changing to a chrysalis of a pale wood color. These chrysalides commonly survive the winter, and in the following June the beautiful 'blue swallowtail ' will emerge, and may be seen suggestively fluttering and poising about the spice and sassafras bushes." After the eggs she lays on them hatch, the caterpillars live upon the leaves. Mrs. Starr Dana says the leaves were used as a substitute for tea during the Rebellion; and the powdered berries for allspice by housekeepers in Revolutionary days.