This, as most folk in the eastern half of the United States know, is sassafras. We have it growing in abundance at Fallen Timbers, but I’ve not come across any of it at Roundrock.
Sassafras is an interesting tree. It is most distinguished by its leaves, which can have one, two, or three lobes. In the photo above you see options one and three, but it is the two-lobed leaf that most people know since it looks so remarkably like a green mitten. In springtime, sassafras leaves have the intense green you see above. Later in summer their green will generally darken, but in the fall, the little trees sport fire engine red leaves that light up the forest.
At Fallen Timbers we have great thickets of these understory trees, all with trunks an inch in diameter, all competing for the light and creating a dense canopy of leaves overhead. These thickets can be so thick that we don’t even try penetrating them when we are hiking. We simply skirt them and find our direction once we’re beyond them. These thickets have sprouted during our tenure, I suspect in response to all of the sunlight that is now reaching the forest floor because of the timber harvesting of past landowners.
When I was in Springfield, Missouri last year at the Forestry Conference, we all embarked on a nature hike, and our guide pointed out some very tall trees with unfamiliar bark on their trunks nearly two feet across at the base. What were these trees? asked our guide. No one could make a guess because no one had ever seen these trees grow this large. They were, of course, sassafras, and under the right conditions, they can grow to be the dominant tree in the forest. This is uncommon though, and I don’t think I have any at Fallen Timbers — not yet anyway. Because they rarely attain this height, they are not a common lumber tree, but I’ve read that their wood is favored for fence posts, which seems to be the gold standard for judging a wood’s value.
I can recall reading in my old Scouting handbook about how to make a root beer-flavored tea from the roots of the sassafras tree. Though I had never done this, I can remember grubbing out some roots and smelling them and finding that they do, indeed, have a root beer smell. And, of course, it makes sense that the beverage called “root beer” would be made from roots. (Or would have been made since I’m sure all of the flavoring these days is produced artificially.) Sadly, the compound that gives the root beer flavor — safrole — has since been classified as a carcinogen, and I suppose the sassafras tree is now being edited out of cookbooks of forest edibles. In the past, had you come to visit me at Fallen Timbers, I might have brewed you sassafras tea — the original root beer. Nowadays, I guess we’ll just stick with real beer.
I’ve also read that sassafras does not transplant well, but I may get ambitious some time and give a try at moving some of my bounty at Fallen Timbers over to Roundrock. I already have two tree plantations I’m trying to nurture, however, and I don’t know if I want a third to split my jugs of water among. You can be sure, though, that if I do undertake such an ambition, I’ll use it for days and days of posts here.
The photo below is the name of the restaurant at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where I traveled during a mad weekend recently. I thought I would include it for fun. Hope you don’t mind.
- First day of summer/solstice: longest day of the year.