Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sassafras Class


Sassafras is a deciduous tree or shrub, depending on its size, found predominantly along the edges of woods. As a tree, it can grow 20 - 40 feet high.

Here are some Sassafras shrubs, 4 - 6 feet tall, at the edge of a woods.

It grows rapidly, and suckers freely. It's a cloning plant; the stems rise along the wide-spreading lateral root system, as you can see below:

In the spring, when the new leaves first emerge...

drooping clusters of flowers appear.

It appears that some ants are assisting in the pollination of these Sassafras flowers.

Sassafras leaves are alternate, not opposite; simple, not compound; the leaf edge is entire (untoothed margin). Also, notice the deep sinuses (space between the lobes).

Size:   3 - 6 " long (8-15 cm), and 2 - 4 " wide (5-10cm). Petioles (leaf stems) are about one inch long (2.5cm).

This tree is unique in that it produces three kinds of leaves:



Another two-lobed:


You may call them one-lobed if you wish.

The two-lobed leaves show additional variety:

"Left-handed mittens:"

"Right-handed mittens:"

This branch holds all three  (4)  types... can you find them?

They are easier to spot here. Hope you don't mind my indoor shot; it was too windy outside to arrange this composite.

The Sassafras generally grows in well-drained stony or sandy soil. Young seedlings are shade tolerant, but prefer sunlit openings in the canopy, and as I've said earlier, mainly along the edge of woods. It is a relatively short-lived tree, becoming shaded out over time.

The younger twigs are glaborous (smooth), green, and have a spicy, aromatic smell that resembles lemons or limes.

You need to scrape this green bark to catch this amazing lemon/lime aroma. Yes, you can try this at home with your kids.

Older branches become red-brown. Older trunks are deeply fissured.

The fruit of the Sassafras appears in September and October. It is an oblong-globose, (nearly spherical) lustrous, dark blue, berry-like drupe 3/8" long. It is surrounded at the base by the scarlet caylx, on a club-shaped pedicel.

Unfortunately, these pedicels are empty. This was a poor weather year, even for the wild fruits. March heat, followed by April frosts, and summer drought took a toll. I searched hundreds of Sassafras trees, and this is all I could find. Anyway, you can see where the blue drupes were. Perhaps they dropped off before I got there. You can  already see the light green buds that will over-winter, and burst open next spring.

The fruits, in a normal year, are high in fat content, but produced in small quantities, so they are not a major food source for wildlife. There are some birds that consume  these drupes, including: Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Grey Catbird, Bobwhite, and the Wild Turkey.

White-tailed Deer browse the leaves and twigs, and Cottontail Rabbits gnaw the bark and nip the twigs.

Now, I think that this is the best part of the Sassafras. It may look like an ugly old root to you, but it's an ugly young root; about 1/2" in diameter where I've pruned it.

When you scrape the root, it smells exactly like Root Beer!  Seriously. Kids, of any age, will like this.

After you wash and scrub the root samples, cut them into 3-6 inch pieces. Put them into a pot of water, and simmer slowly for about eight minutes. Let it steep for 1/2 hour. Drink warm or cold as a unique-tasting tea. Not too much. Not too often. Just a sample, for the experience of doing it yourself. Add honey if you want it sweeter. 

Did you enjoy this class in Sassafras? Have you learned some new terms? Will you return for next term?

Will your family look for all the kinds of leaves before they fall this fall? Will you try the smell and taste experiments? (This works all year)


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Sassafras  (Sassafras variifolium) (variety of foliage)

(Click on any photo to enlarge)

Photo Locations: Kent County,  Michigan