Deciduous shrub to 1.5 m. Young branchlets pubescent. Leaves pinnately veined, drooping, strongly aromatic throughout growing season with similar scent to sassafras / root beer. Leaf blade elliptic to ovate, 8–16 × 3–6 cm, membranous, pubescent on both surfaces; base rounded to widely cuneate, margins ciliate, apex acute; petiole ~10 mm, pubescent. Flowers with 6 tepals. Drupe red, rounded, ~12 mm; fruiting pedicels of previous season persistent on stem, stout, 9–12 mm, with enlarged apex. (Wofford 1997).
Distribution United States Mississippi Embayment and coastal plain, probably extinct elsewhere in the southeast
Habitat Low woods, depressions, pond margins; 0–100 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
Rare both as a wild plant and in gardens, Pondberry is a small to medium sized wetland shrub which can make sizeable colonies by clonal spread. Its chief attractions are the dense clusters of small yellow flowers, typical of linderas, on bare stems just before leaf emergence, and – in female plants – bright red fruits. As a garden plant in the American Southeast, it suits moist soil in anything from full shade to full sun, although yellow autumn colour develops only with some sun; fruits attract many bird species to the garden (North Carolina State University 2023; Panter Nursery 2023). The leaves are strongly aromatic.
Lindera melissifolia is one of the species with deciduous, pinnately-veined leaves, probably closely related to the other two North American linderas. The much commoner and more widespread L. benzoin differs in being a potentially taller understorey shrub with obovate leaves, cuneate at the base with an acuminate apex at least on the larger ones, held at or above the horizontal (cf. elliptic to ovate, base cuneate, apex acutebut not acuminate), and less persistent fruiting pedicels. L. subcoriacea Wofford (probably not cultivated in our area but present in some southeastern American collections – Dirr 2009) is an evergreen shrub with smaller, leathery, less strongly aromatic leaves, found in acidic bogs (Wofford 1997). Originally described as a Laurus (Walter 1788), the specific epithet (i.e. leaves resembling the Lemon Balm Melissa) presumably refers to scent rather than shape.
Lindera melissifolia exists as relict populations in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, and especially Arkansas, most often in the shade of trees but sometimes in full sun. Moisture availability is a prerequisite, and many sites are seasonally flooded. Land drainage, with or without subsequent change of land use, is its most significant threat (US Fish & Wildlife Service 2023). Currently not assessed by the IUCN, the species is classed as endangered by the US federal government. Low levels of genetic diversity and highly unequal sex ratios (usually male-biased) are features of these populations, with vegetative spread the norm, and any buried seed bank short-lived (Gustafson, Giunta & Echt 2013; Wright 1994; Hawkins, Walck & Hidayati 2011). This is not a healthy situation in the long term.
Far from mainstream in North American gardens, it is found in southeastern collections outside our area, but has been commercially offered more widely by Panter Nursery, TN (Panter Nursery 2023). We see no evidence of it being grown in Europe.