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The Sassafras


Sassafras, Karst.

The sole remnant of an ancient genus is the aro matic sassafras familiar as a roadside tree that flames in autumn with the star gum and the swamp maples. In the deep woods it reaches a height of more than a hundred feet and is an important lumber tree. In the arctic regions and in the rocky strata of our western mountains, fossil leaves of sassafras are preserved, and the same traces arc found in Europe, giving to the geologist proofs that the genus once had a much wider range than now. But no living representative of the genus was known outside of eastern North America, until the report of a recently discovered sassafras in China.

The Indians in Florida named the sassafras to the inquiring colonists who came with Columbus. They ex plained its curative properties, and its reputation traveled up the Atlantic seaboard. The first cargo of home products shipped by the colonists back to England from Massachusetts contained a large consignment of sassafras roots. To-day we look for an exhibit of sassafras bark in drug-store windows in spring. People buy it and make sassafras tea which they drink "to clear the blood." "In the Southwestern states the dried leaves are much used as an ingredient in soups, for which they are well adapted by the abundance of mucilage they contain. For this purpose the mature green leaves are dried, powdered (the stringy portions being separated), sifted and preserved for use. This preparation mixed with soups gives them a ropy consistence and a peculiar flavor, much relished by those accustomed to it. To such soups are given the names gombo file and gombo zab." (Seton.) Emerson says that in New England a decoction of sassafras bark gave to the housewife's homespun woolen cloth a permanent orange dye. The name "Ague Tree" originated with the use of sassafras bark tea as a stimulant that warmed and brought out the perspiration freely for victims of the malarial "ague," or "chills and fever." Sassafras wood is dull orange-yellow, soft, weak, light, brittle, and coarse-grained, but it is amazingly durable in contact with the soil, as the pioneers learned when they used it to make posts and fence rails. It is largely used also in cooperage, and in the building of light boats. Oil of sassafras distilled from the bark of the roots is used for perfuming soaps and flavoring medicines.

With all its practical uses listed above, we must all have learned to know the tree if it grows in our neighbor hood, and if we observe it closely, month by month throughout the year, we shall all agree that its beauty justifies its selection for planting in our home grounds, and surpasses all its medicinal and other commercial offerings to the world.

In winter the sassafras tree is most picturesque by reason of the short, stout, twisted branches that spread almost at right angles from the central shaft, and form a narrow, usually flat, often unsymmetrical head. The bark is rough, reddish brown, deeply and irregularly divided into broad scaly plates or ridges. The branches end in slim, pale yellow-green twigs that are set with pointed, bright green buds, giving the tree an appearance of being thoroughly alive while others, bare of leaves, look dead in winter.

What country boy or girl has not lingered on the way home from school to nibble the dainty green buds of the sassafras, or to dig at the roots with his jack-knife for a sliver of aromatic bark? As spring comes on the bare twigs are covered with a delicate green of the opening leaves, brightened by clusters of yellow flowers (see illustration, page 150) whose starry calyxes are alike on all of the trees; but only on the fertile trees are the flowers succeeded by the blue berries, soften ing on their scarlet pedicels, if only the birds can wait until they are ripe.

Midsummer is the time to hunt for "mittens" and to note how many different forms of leaves belong on the same sassafras tree. First, there is the simple ovate leaf; second, a larger blade oval in form but with one side ex tended and lobed to form a thumb, making the whole leaf look like the pattern of a mitten cut out by an un skilled hand; third, a symmetrical, three-lobed leaf, the pattern of a narrow mitten with a large thumb on each side. Not infrequently do all these forms occur on a single twig. Only the mulberry, among our native trees, shows such a variety of leaf forms as the sassafras. There is quite as great variation in the size of the leaves. One law seems to prevail among sassafras trees: more of the oval leaves than the lobed ones are found on mature trees. It is the roadside sapling, with its foliage within easy reach, that delights boys and girls with its wonderful variety of leaf patterns. Here the size of the leaves greatly surpasses that of the foliage on full-grown trees, and the autumnal colors are more glorious in the roadside thickets than in the tree-tops far above them.

Sassafras trees grow readily from seed in any loose, moist soil. A single tree spreads by a multitude of fleshy root-stalks, and these natural root-cuttings bear trans planting as easily as a poplar. Every garden border should have one specimen at least to acid its flame to the conflagration of autumn foliage and the charming con trast of its blue berries on their coral stalks.

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