Friday, January 21, 2005
Where seen: There is a group of Sassafras trees at the Cranberry Bog growing alongside the path. There are also several saplings in the Towle Woods growing in the shade.
Distinguishing characteristics: In the winter you can recognize a Sassafras tree by its green twigs and the rather large bud at the tip of the twig. Other trees with large terminal buds do not have green twigs. Many trees, like oak and maple, have a cluster of buds at the end of the twig. You can also identify Sassafras by the sweetish spicy flavor taste you get if you chew on a twig. In other seasons, Sassafras is very easy to identify by the shape of the leaves. Some of the leaves will be simple and elliptical but many will have two lobes arranged in a mitten-shape while others will have an equally distinctive arrangement of three lobes. In fall the leaves may be yellow, red or orange.
Special Uses: Many parts of the Sassafras tree contain oil of sassafras which is used as a perfume for soap, as a tea, and to flavor root beer. The roots and root bark have the strongest concentration of the oil but the young shoots are also used. I found the following account: "In Virginia and in the more southern states, the country people make a beer by boiling the young shoots of sassafras in water, to which a certain quantity of molasses is added, and the whole is left to ferment; this beer is considered as a very salutary drink during the summer." Dried ground Sassafras leaves are known as 'file' (pronounced fee-lay) and used in Cajun cooking where it is the traditional condiment for gumbo. The Cajuns learned about it from the Choctaw Indians.
Habitat: Sassafras likes moist well-drained sandy soils in open woods but it is also common as a pioneer species on abandoned fields. It is not tolerant of shade; the ones in the Towle Woods are not in an open area and will probably not get very big. The ones at the Cranberry Bog get a lot of sun and are much taller. Sassafras can form groves by sending up saplings from the parent rootstock. It also has another trick which allows it to grow into relatively pure stands — allelopathy.
Word for the day: Allelopathy is the release of chemicals by a plant for the purpose of keeping other plants from growing too close to it. When plants are grouped according to the vigor of their allelopathy, Sassafras is in the group with the strongest effect, along with the notoriously allelopathic black walnut.
References: Donald W. Stokes, A Guide to Nature in Winter (in the Gleason library); Elbert Little, Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees —Eastern Region; William M. Harlow, Trees of Eastern and Central United States and Canada.
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