Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sassafras in the City

I was delighted and a little surprised to find a few sassafras trees at the middle school just down the street.  Sassafras is famous for its three leaf shapes: "mitten," double-mitten", and just plain normal.  I like that it hangs out in wilder areas like Blue Hill Reservation--although one of the biggest trees I know is actually in a suburban yard near my mother's house.  And, of course, I love it for the aroma it gives off.  Like many plants, sassafras generates aromatic compounds that defend it from insects.  And--like many plants--these defensive chemicals smell very nice to humans!  In fact, our culinary herbs and spices come from plants that use them as weapons ("Those humans: using our poisons, they make pizza!  Go figure.")

The leaves have some insect damage right now; of course, insects evolve as well as trees--and faster, since they have a shorter generation time--so the arms race continues. 

Sassafras root was an original flavoring in root beer.  Sassafras was an important medicinal export in colonial times, second only to tobacco, at one point.  Many years ago when I worked at a Boy Scout camp, we used to put a few twigs into hot water to make a nice tea.  We stopped when we learned  one ingredient might be harmful, and even carcinogenic.  But the leaves are still powdered to make the file that flavors, for example, New Orleans' file gumbo.  (And that same toxic oil, safrole, is the main ingredient in the designer drug, Ecstasy.)    

I still remember when some construction work knocked a small sassafras tree down, leaving its roots exposed.  Walking downwind of that tree, the the overpowering smell would always stop me in my tracks.  I couldn't go on without first inhaling a deep lungful.  

So you don't have to ingest sassafras to enjoy it.  If you spot a tree, there is no harm in breaking off a leaf or a tiny twig now and then and enjoying the fragrance!

 The trees flowered late in April.

 By mid-May it was clear that none of the flowers I could see would set fruit
--I don't know why, since several nearby trees also flowered.

The variable leaf shape makes this perhaps the easiest of all trees to identify!
In winter, the green twigs are a clue.

 Some critters can apparently eat the leaves and survive.
But this is much less damage than most other trees are suffering, right now.

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