Sassafras


If you take the Woodland Trail from the farm road you head up a little hill.   At the top there’s a turn off to one of the other trails.  I like to stay on course for a while.  There are other opportunities to switch, and I enjoy heading down the hill to a little dell where an ecotone forms.  An ecotone is an area where different kinds of habitat meet. They can be rich locations for all kinds of wildlife.  This spot has a tiny meadow, some scrubby woodland and a  nearby wetland area.  You can find many birds and the spot just has a good feel. I often linger and see what turns up.

Looking to the left at the bottom of the hill and toward the back of the little meadow there, almost right under Route 4, you’ll see a stand of trees with very straight trunks clustered together.  It looks a little Burnham Wood-Come-to-Dunsinane, but I checked and there isn’t anyone hiding in there. 

Every one of the trees looks the same, sort of.  Trunks are similar and the height varies, but none are much out of proportion with the others.  The wacky part is the leaves.  Some look like a simple ellipse, others like a mitten.  A third kind looks to my eye like a dinosaur footprint.  What tree produces three different kinds of leaves? Actually, there are a few species like mulberry and burr oak, but the habits and the characteristics of the sassafras (never mind the rollercoaster name) are really neat.

Sassafras is the “go-to” plant for loads of folk remedies, yet at the same time has a bad reuputation with the USDA as a potential carcinogen.  Go figure.  The hill people versus science.  Who knows what to believe?  Frankly, as a confirmed lover of Cajun food, I have to endorse the use of file-a key ingredient of gumbo.  I like the old Hank Williams song-“Jambaya, crawfish pie and the file gumbo….”-my mother used to sing it to me.  The leaf of the sassafras is dried and crumbled to produce the spice and thickener essential to so much Cajun cuisine.

Among the many other uses found for it over the centuries, sassafras has taken a star turn in candy, root beer, soap and perfume.  After its introduction in Europe, it was served up in England as “saloop”-sassafras tea served with hot milk.  Everyone loved it so much that it became in 1610 a condition of the Virginia charter from England.  It also found favor as a remedy for colds, rheumatism and skin disorders. 

The sassafras, known sometimes by Native Americans as “the greenstick” tree, starts out just so-as a green stick seemingly growing without obvious genesis.  While the plant can grow from seed, the most common (and annoying I am forced to say) is its habit of growing from “suckers” or volunteers from hidden rootstock derived from mature trees. Sassafras can grow inches a year, so it gets big quickly.  Loads will grow all at once.  A full grown tree can reach sixty feet, so it’s hard to imagine you wouldn’t see the the materfamilias, but with a big crown, the mama can be pretty far away and you might not notice it. The greenstick volunteers grow in horrifying profusion and are practically impossible  to get rid of in a backyard or garden. 

In a sense, you have to give the sassafras some credit.  The suckers spring up in droves when the originating tree is cut down as if to protest the demise of its kinsman and keep the bloodline going.  Thus the army of them down by the Woodland Trail.  They are hardy nearly everywhere, and in many cases prized as an ornamental.  In places it is loved for the pretty fall foliage, which can develop in an amazing variety of colors.

Crush a leaf between your fingers; whatever else you may think about its growing habit, you’ll love the fragrance.  This member of the laurel family disperses its pretty perfume quite readily, and you may find yourself pining for a root beer. 

See You on the Trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Note:  Photo credit:  Rosanna Hamilton

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6 Responses to “Sassafras”

  1. Bridget Willard Says:

    Sasssssafras. 😀

  2. Sheila Cox Says:

    So much information in such a beautifully worded short passage!

  3. Krista Says:

    mmmm…. root beer! Root beer float…..

  4. Festival of the Trees 42: seven billion new trees | Via Negativa Says:

    […] at Connecticut-based Hill-Stead’s Nature Blog, whose proprietor sent along a link to post on Sassafras, as well. Both posts blend the personal with the scientific and folkloric into brief but […]

  5. Elizabeth Enslin Says:

    Beautiful tree! I used to love sassafras tea when I was a kid, then stopped drinking because of the carcinogen concerns. Haven’t had it for years, but remember that flavor fondly. Thanks for the informative and delightfully descriptive post.

  6. Diane Tucker Says:

    Thank you for reading!
    Diane

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