Natural Order Laurineae, Tribe Litseacae.
COMMON NAMES.—It is natural for settlers in a new country to exagerate the virtue of the natural products of the land, and hence it is that this bush was described by early travelers as being exceedingly aromatic and fragrant, and was said to be a substitute for allspice, and came to be known as Spice Bush, Wild Allspice and Spicewood, the former being the name by which it is generally designated.
When the shrub was first introduced into Europe it was the reputed source of the gum benzoin, also called gum benjamin, and the shrub is still named Benjamin Bush in many botanical works.
The twigs have been used in domestic practice in fevers and the plant is known also as Fever Bush and Fever Wood.
BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION.—Spice bush is a shrub growing six to ten feet high, and found along streams and in open woods. The branches are covered with a smooth, dark brown, almost black, thin bark. They are slender, tapering, and easily fractured.
The flowers appear before the leaves, and from lateral buds situated in the axes of the leaf scars of the previous year. There are one or two flower buds produced in each axis. Each flower bud develops usually three, sometimes more, small yellow flowers, the middle one developing first. The bud scales remain attached at the base of the flower, forming an involucre; the outer two, concave, brown and boat-shaped; the inner thinner, larger, and greenish yellow.
The plant is dioicious, bearing stamenate flowers on one bush, the pistillate on another, the former being of more frequent occurence. The flowers are on short yellow pedicels, about an eighth of an inch long. The sepals are six, yellow, spreading or reflexed.
In the male flower the stamens are nine, and about the length of the sepals, and are in two rows; six in an outer row opposite the sepals and spreading; and three in an inner row standing erect and opposite alternate stamens of the outer row. The three inner stamens have attached at the base, on each side, a deep yellow glandular appendage, (see b, fig. 148,) which forms a kind of crown in the centre of the flower. These are in reality the abortive anthers of a suppressed row of six stamens, but they have lost almost all their anther character.
The filaments are slender and bear a two-celled anther. These anther cells open toward the centre flower by two valves, hinged at the top which shrivel up and remain as shown in our figure. [The valvular dehiscence of the anther, which is comparatively rare, is a family character of the entire Natural Order Laurineae, and occurs in all the genera.] The pollen is dry, dusty, and readily dissipated by the wind so that soon after dehiscing none remains in the anther cells. The grains are small, .06 Mm., and simply globular, without special marking, excepting a granular coat. The pistil in the male flower is represented by a minute, rudamentary organ in the centre of the flower.
The fertile flowers are similar to the stamenate, but smaller and more numerous in the cluster. The calyx is not as spreading, but cup-shape and encloses a yellow pistil with a globular, one-celled ovary and a slender protruding style. Around the base of the pistil are inserted about eighteen small rudimentary stamens.
The leaves are oblong-obovate, three to five inches long, one-half as wide, entire, thin, smooth except a slight pubesence on the veins, acute or acuminate. They are dark green above, lighter beneath.
The fruit is a fleshy drupe, containing a bony seed, covered with scant flesh, and a smooth skin, which when ripe, in the latter part of the summer, is of a bright red color.
There is but one other species of the genus in the United States. This is Lindera melissaefolia, and is found in the Southern States.
COMMERCIAL HISTORY.—The plant is so little used in medicine that it has no commercial history. There is a limited demand for a fluid extract which is made from the bark of the branches and from the twigs, but they are collected in small amounts and usually to order.
CONSTITUENTS.—All parts of the plant are pervaded by a volatile oil that has an aromatic odor, and the berries when ripe contain a fixed oil in addition thereto. The volatile oil is the characteristic principle, but it promises nothing in medicine beyond other well-known and more abundant aromatic or stimulating oils, such as sassafras, erigeron, turpentine, hemlock, etc.
Schoepf, 1787, mentions this expressed oil of the berries, and all writers have referred to the aromatic property dependent upon a volatile oil. The first systematic examination of the drug that we can locate was made by Mr. T. Morris Jones, [American Journal of Pharmacy, 1875, p. 246.] who found the bark to yield a volatile oil of an aromatic odor; and the usual constituents of plants, such as a small portion of resin, wax, starch, a tannin and inorganic constituents. He did not determine the specific gravity or the boiling point of the oil, but found that by means of bichromate of potassium and sulphuric acid, or permanganate of potassium, the odor of bitter almonds could be divulged. He concluded therefrom that the oil belonged to the cinnamyl series.
Mr. Perry Martin Glim, 1875, [An inaugural essay, American Journal of Pharmacy, 1875, p. 300.] examined the dry berries, and by exhausting them with petroleum benzine obtained nearly fifty per cent. of a deep red oil of an aromatic taste and odor.
This was a mixture of fixed and volatile oils, the larger share being fixed. The red color was undoubtedly due to the coloring matter of the berries, and is not inherent in the oil, although he did not determine that fact. The specific gravity of this oil was 0.925. This is probably identical with the expressed oil mentioned by Schoepf. Mr. Glim distilled the fresh berries with water, obtaining thereby about five per cent. of a colorless volatile oil of a pleasant fragrant odor, and the specific gravity, 0.870, but he did not attempt to verify the examination of Mr. Morris regarding its relation to the cinnamyl series. The chemical study of this oil would be interesting to students, but does not promise much in the direction of an application to medicine.
MEDICAL HISTORY.—Under the name "Fever Bush," Cutler ["An account of some of the vegetable productions naturally growing in this part of America, botanically arranged, by the Rev. Manesseh Cutler." Published in the Transactions of the American Academy of Sciences, 1785. p. 440.] briefly describes an aromatic laurel with red berries, a decoction of the twigs of which was used by country people as a drink in low fevers. He states that the Indians also used it. This is the first reference we can find to the medical uses of the shrub.
Schoepf, 1787, [Materia Medica Americana, p. 61.] describes this plant under the name Laurus aestivalis, and his description of its qualities is equal to any that has succeeded unto the present day. Indeed, we are of the opinion that subsequent medical writers have simply altered the wording of this paper of Schoepf that was printed one hundred years ago. At least, they have added nothing thereto, and, if our surmise is correct, Schoepf has received at their hands but little if any recognition. The credit that has since been occasionally awarded other parties should undoubtedly go back of them to Schoepf. He states that the leaves in decoction are used in intermittent fever, and that the expressed oil of the berries is applied externally for rheumatism.
Barton, 1801, [Collections for a Materia Medica, part 1st, p. 20 (edition 1810).] briefly stated that during the Revolutionary War the Americans used the dry berries of this plant as a substitute for allspice, and also upon Cutler's authority said that a decoction of the young twigs was also used by country people as "an agreeable drink in slow fevers." The fact that Barton passes the plant so lightly fairly proves that it was not even in moderate use in his day; and, in our opinion, it would require a lively imagination to trace a similarity between allspice and the berries of spice-bush, or to make the decoction of spice-bush agreeable.
Rafinesque, 1830, [Medical Botany of the United States, volume ii., p. 336.] gives the plant an inconspicuous position, and states, apparently on the authority of Schoepf, although he makes no immediate reference to that author, that it is "used in tea or powder, chiefly as a stimulant and depurative, also as a tonic and vermifuge. It is a good febrifuge in agues. The red berries afford a fine stimulating oil."
The first edition of the United States Dispensatory (1833) omitted it, but in the apendix of the second edition (p. 1091, 1834) a few lines recognize it in a general manner as unimportant. To this record nothing has been added in after editions beyond brief reference to the chemical papers that appeared in the American Journal of Pharmacy (see Constituents).
King, 1852, [Eclectic Dispensatory of the United States, King and Newton, p. 94.] in the first edition of his Dispensatory, mentions the plant ascribing to it the usual properties, but this was altogether upon the statements of others, and Prof. King has never considered it of interest sufficient to prescribe it.
Neither Beach, Thompson, nor their followers, have used it as a materia medica remedy, although occasionally country people were directed to drink a tea of the shrub for fevers. It is asserted by some that a tea of the berries is beneficial in dysentery, and, upon the authority of Rafinesque, that a decoction of the bark will expel worms in children, but we can find no good reason for employing this drug for these purposes in the presence of other well-known and common valuable remedies. Taken altogether, the drug is unimportant, and only under cases of necessity similar to the pressure of war, will it be likely to excite any attention; but under such circumstances it possibly might again be used as a substitute for substances that are temporarily unattainable. [During the late civil war in America, the expense of coffee was so great as to prevent many persons from enjoying that luxury. Then substitutes appeared, and one that country people employed extensively was roasted rye. By stretches of imagination these decoctions could be made to appear palatable, but, when attainable again, the genuine coffe proved very acceptable. This is not given upon hearsay, but by experience.]
Dose.—Writers agree that infusions of all parts of the plant are given freely, but it is probable that the medical profession know of it only by reports of country people.
Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887, was written by John Uri Lloyd and Curtis G. Lloyd.