Mar 6, 2014 at 12:36 PM
This native deciduous tree of the Eastern U.S. was once a major export for this country. It was the second largest export behind tobacco in the Virginia colonies when America was first settled. The root bark was an ingredient for traditional root beers before modern technology created its own version of “Root beer soda”. The leaves are often used in Cajun cooking as flavoring and thickening agents known as “filé” (fee-lay). This was also an important “spring tonic” utilized by the Native Americans and introduced to the early settlers. Spring tonics were used after a long winter to thin the blood, cleanse the body, and add nutrition. Because of the wonderful aroma and taste, it was also added to bitters to add a better flavor and make it acceptable to some.
The tree itself can reach up to 60 feet in some areas, but mostly that would be in the southern regions of the Eastern U.S. The northern regions will likely see this tree at 10 – 40 feet tall. The wood is very aromatic. Young twigs are green and smooth, and stay that color in the winter which makes identification easier. Older bark is whitish-gray with the larger branches rough, and deeply furrowed. The leaves are distinguishable by the varying shapes of ovate, mitten, and 3-lobed. They are 4-6 inches long, bright green, and smooth above while downy (hairy) beneath. The flowers are the first recognized feature in March being that they come before the leaves. I remember the first time I saw the flowers on this tree! They were aromatic, and beautiful standing out against the light green twigs. I instantly became entranced with this plant! They are a greenish-yellow, 5 petaled, and appear in clusters on the stem. The flowers are dioecious , which means that the female and male flowers are on separate trees. The female tree will have dark blue fruit (drupes) on a red stem in the fall. These drupes are not edible. The male’s flowers are a bit more profuse. This tree spreads in colonies in the wild by suckers. It is grown easily in average, well-drained soils. It prefers sun to part sun, but will not tolerate shade. Transplanting this tree is difficult due to the large taproots. You will most likely come in contact with Sassafras along the edges of woods, in fence rows, thickets, or roadsides. I have some growing in my yard (I like to call them volunteers), and have them directly across the street on the outside of the Edison Woods.
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