You know the question, If you were a tree, what tree would you be? My quick answer would be, a sassafras tree. I’ve had a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Virginia, since 1992. During that time I’ve hiked my mountain up and down, getting to know all the things that grow here. I love them all, but the sassafras speaks to me. Speaks to me more than any other tree.
I’ll introduce you to the sassafras trees that I know here on the mountain. I’ll start with this season. Autumn. I am a color person. Color is extremely important to me. The sassafras celebrates autumn with splendid colors. Its rich green leaves, fading into lime green, butter yellow, school bus yellow, as the chlorophyll in its leaves fades away.
But that is just the beginning. The sassafras becomes a multicolored fiesta in autumn. Rust red, burgundy and many a shade of orange appear.
These leaves, like the twigs, bark and roots, all have the fragrance of root beer. Perfect timing: as I write this, my husband brings me an icy mug of root beer. Mmm! It takes me back to my childhood.
As I reminisce, I recall that sassafras oil has been determined to contain a carcinogenic substance, safrole. Root beer no longer contains safrole. You would be wise not to dig the roots of sassafras, to use as a root beer flavoring, or to make tea, as I did as a child. That lovely aroma, sure brings the memories back. But let’s be safe.
As the leaves fall, the intricate texture of the bark becomes my focus. And the color of the bark, just below the surface. A rich, cinnamon red-brown. Looking, just the right color, to match that childhood memories aroma. The bark, a lovely lacework of ridges, undulating this way and that.
And, like the bark, the trunks of the sassafras trees appear to dance through the forest. Like the bark pattern, bending this way and that. Winter is a favorite season for me. It reveals the trees’ structure. The trees’ form. Sassafras trees bend and sway, even in standing still.
Time flies and the sassafras trees’ buds are waiting for the first of the slightly warm days. At the beginning of April, they begin swelling and by the third week of April, here on Snow Mountain, the woods are filled with flowers.
Not much for show, but still beautiful to me. There is a soft, butter yellow haze in the woods. The flowers arrive before the leaves.
Now I am going to tell you a secret. As fond of sassafras, as I am, I had never seen sassafras drupes (one seeded fruit), until this summer. On finding some, I was amazed at their unusual look. Patriotic red and blue.
And yet, I understood why I had not seen them before. The leaves provide a perfect hiding place for the drupes. So much so, that it was a challenge to get a photograph to show you.
The drupes are popular with many birds and once they are gone, their receptacles are still attractive. Crimson against the green leaves.
Lovely sassafras has a weakness, if you are going to plant a few in your garden. If you are in an area prone to problems with Japanese Beetles, beware. Japanese Beetles really enjoy Sassafras leaves. Fortunately for me, my woods are my gardens. They are filled with Sassafras. A Japanese Beetle chomped away on this leaf, but there are still many, many more untouched.
But with that attractiveness to Japanese Beetles, it certainly has its strengths as well. Another critter that eats the sassafras leaf, is the caterpillar of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. I consider that a big plus. Along with its beauty, it tolerates clay soils, and drought. Deer, and gypsy moth caterpillars will go for other things to eat, before they chomp on sassafras.
Once I became acquainted with the trees on the mountain, I realized that sassafras trees can grow to be quite large. Up to about 60 feet in height. They are most often seen as the understory shrub though.
Allelopathic is a term used to describe a characteristic of sassafras. That means the tree releases a chemical that hinders the health of some plants living around the sassafras. American elm is one of the trees that is affected by this chemical. This is a defense for the sassafras, eliminating some of its competition.
I am very fortunate being here in the woods. Sassafras trees come up as volunteers all over. I love it!