Consider the sassafras tree

The fall leaves seem muted this year. We have not yet reached the peak of brilliant color so anticipated in our region. Perhaps this is due to the unseasonable heat and dry days of September. Instead, the leaves have already started coming down.

Autumn’s foliage may seem subdued this year, but this offers a chance to notice the vibrancy of the other colors of fall that are sometimes overlooked in pursuit of the perfectly burnished maple.

There is the heady rust and yellow of the hay scented ferns that fill the woods. There is the deep purple of the asters. There is the intense flame and pink feather-like leaves of the staghorn sumac. And there is the warm, pink-orange of the sassafras tree.

There is a groveof sassafras (Sassafras albidum) along the roadside here by my house on Neering Road. I’ve known this grove since I was a young child growing up on our farm.

These trees announced the opening of “the sassafras path,” so named by my sisters and cousins. This path was a shortcut through the woods that led to my aunt and uncle’s house on Route 97. It was next to the small meadow known as “the horse pasture.” This was the old name for the field where, when I was a kid, yet another uncle used to grow buckwheat. (Presumably, at one time, horses grazed there.)

Now, the field has grown in and the path is barely a whisper through the woods. These old names hold meaning to only a few remaining people. But the memory of “the sassafras path” is a dear one to me, as it marked the point where we were quite close to the fun and excitement of my uncle’s home.

The sassafras trees are in fine form this fall, showing a beautiful shade of orangey, pink leaves. This tree is unique in that it has three different leaf patterns that are often present on the same plant. There is an oval shaped leaf; a two-lobed form that looks like the shape of a mitten; and a three lobed shape.

 The sassafras tree holds a varied and interesting place in early American history. Prized for its spicy flavor, the roots and bark of the tree have had many uses, both culinary and medicinal. The wood is valued for furniture and boat building. The tree was widely used by native tribes, and legend has it that Christopher Columbus found America because he could smell the sassafras. In the early 17th century, sassafras is said to have been the second largest export (right behind tobacco) from the American colonies to Britain.

While sassafras tea remains a common wild edible, the days of sassafras use in the manufacture of commercial root beer in the U.S. are over. Sassafras oil contains the compound safrole, which is considered to be a weak carcinogenic. Consequently, the FDA banned the use of it in food and drugs in 1960 when it was found to cause liver disease and cancer in laboratory rats. (Incidentally, safrole is an ingredient in the manufacture of the drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy.) However, sassafras continues to be a part of Creole cuisine. The leaves are dried and ground to make filé powder, an ingredient in gumbo.

 The tree is also known as a food for many woodland birds and mammals as well as a food plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.

 Take a look for the gorgeous orange leaves of the sassafras tree on your next autumn walk.


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