The Root Beer Tree: Sassafras in The Last Green Valley
In the woods near my childhood home grew a cluster of small trees. I only noticed them after my older brother pointed them out to me. He showed me that some of the leaves were shaped like mittens, but when he mentioned root beer, I was hooked.
He broke off some branches and we smelled the sweet inner bark. He pulled up a very small seedling and scraped the roots with his penknife, and we discovered an even stronger, sweet, root-beer smell. Of all the trees in my neighborhood forest this was my favorite, and it had a funny name too – sassafras.
This past Sunday, I led a nature walk in the Hale Forest before the start of the Coventry Regional Famer’s Market. As we walked along the path, I found sassafras growing along the edge of the road in a recently cleared spot of land. Like my older brother many years ago, I shared the twig’s sweet smell with the walk participants.
After finding sassafras this past weekend, I decided to share this unique tree with readers. Looking through my resource materials, I discovered an excellent description written by an old friend, the late David Schroeder, Professor Emeritus and former head of the Department of Natural Resources Management and Engineering at the University of Connecticut.
Dave could identify anything growing in our region’s forest and woodlands. We both served on the board of the Eastern Connecticut Forest Landowners Association and Wolf Den Land Trust, and he was a frequent contributor to that organization’s newsletter. I am happy to share the article he wrote on sassafras for the newsletter.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of the most easily identified trees in Connecticut. The aromatic leaves are usually one of three distinct shapes: three lobed, mitten shaped (both left and right-handed mittens) and unlobed. Twigs are greenish and aromatic and the bark on older stems is deeply furrowed and reddish brown.
One is likely to encounter this lovely little tree along roadsides or in open areas. It is an aggressive pioneer that can become established very quickly on abandoned fields. The fruit, a blue drupe borne on a red stalk, is eagerly eaten by a wide variety of birds that effectively disseminate the seeds. Once established sassafras can produce root sprouts, which is why you often see it in dense thickets along roads and in abandoned fields. Although most of us would regard this as a small to medium-sized tree, a specimen over six feet in diameter and 100 feet tall has been reported.
Sassafras is shade intolerant and does not grow well in shady locations. There is good evidence to show that sassafras is “alleolpathic” (i.e. it produces chemicals in roots that are inhibitory or toxic to other plants). Although this phenomenon is not well understood it may be the reason that it is able to become established easily and maintain itself in relatively pure clumps.
As early as 1574 sassafras was touted as a plant that could cure a vast variety of diseases. Native Americans, who used the plant for medicinal purposes, introduced it to the Spaniards, who then spread the word. Entrepreneurs from the Old World sent out expeditions to find and gather sassafras, which was carried over the sea to Europe. Exports of sassafras roots from Jamestown provided an early source of income for the settlers. Unfortunately, the promised cure for various aliments did not pan out and it soon lost its reputation as a cure-all. However, a tea brewed from the root of the bark is still used by some old timers as a “spring tonic.” In the South, a powder made from dried leaves of sassafras, called file, is used to thicken and flavor certain Creole dishes. The wood of sassafras is fairly durable, making it useful for fence posts. Deer love to browse sassafras and various small mammals and birds eat the seeds.
If you are one who prefers to landscape your grounds with native plants, sassafras would be a good choice. It produces fragrant yellow flowers in the spring before the leaves unfold. This combined with the variously shaped leaves, deeply furrowed bark and fall foliage that varies from yellow to orange to salmon color makes it as very attractive tree.
Dave didn’t mention that sassafras was used to make traditional root beer, so I did a bit more digging. The history of root beer, from the commercial success of Hires Root Beer to A&W, indicates the early recipes included sassafras oil made from the root of the tree. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras oil because it contains the carcinogen and liver-damaging chemical safrol. A process was later discovered to remove the harmful chemical from sassafras oil, while preserving the flavor.
Next time you happen to be walking the woods with a youngster, look for sassafras and don’t forget to pull off a twig and leaf, open it up to the soft inside wood, and share the smell with your companion. The smile of discovery always makes a walk in the woods time well spent.
We live in a beautiful region with an abundance of flora and fauna. The wonderful sassafras tree is just one of many special tree species waiting for you to discover. I hope you’ll join me as we explore our woodlands and teach and inspire the next generation of nature enthusiasts.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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