Ode to Sassafras

These are the Sassafras trees with whom I shared place.

I have a write-up of Sassafras in my Plant Profiles. But this post isn’t about that. This post (and some of this is mingled into my plant profile) is about how I feel about Sassafras and what happened when I left them behind.

I first learned of the Sassafras tree on a nature walk in elementary school. Someone came to our classroom and taught us about the life cycle of a pond. Then she brought the class into the Fells Reservation, a large forest that bordered part of our town (and was right across the street from where I grew up), on a field trip. Among other things, she pointed out Sassafras and how to recognize it by its mitten leaves. I’m pretty sure I was enthralled that there was a tree that had leaves that looked like a mitten. I don’t remember ever not being enchanted when coming across a Sassafras tree.

When we moved into the house we built in Princeton, I was tickled to find a Sassafras tree at the end of our driveway amongst the white pine. Over the years, that one tree turned into a small grove, and I discovered trees on the other side of the driveway, as well. I considered those trees to be the sentinels as you entered our homestead and loved that a tree I’d adored since childhood made its home with me and my own children.

The Sassafras wand on top of my Choose Kindness picture along with a turkey feather from my friend’s yard.

In my herbal studies, I learned about Sassafras but never really used it because of the warnings about Safrole in the roots. It was the original flavoring of Root Beer which, to be honest, I never liked all that much. At one point, though, my husband said the trees were leaning too much into the driveway, and he was going to cut some down. “Don’t,” I said. “I will.” And I went out, cut down the tree he was talking about, and brought it inside to dry its leaves. I still have those dried leaves in a jar. My intent was to make Filé (powdered leaves of the Sassafras used in Creole cooking to thicken soups). I still have to do that. The other thing I did was to cut a piece of branch to keep as a treasure on my sun porch. I brought that “wand” with me, and it now adorns my new quiet space. I didn’t want to just cut down a beloved tree and waste all of its wonderful gifts. I’m really happy I did that, now, because…

Sassafras has gorgeous fall colors!

About a month ago, I drove by my old home. My friend had told me that the new owners had done some cleanup at the end of the driveway and planted flowers. As I drove by, something felt wrong, and I realized that my beloved Sassafras were missing. (Note: I did not turn around and drive back to confirm that, so hopefully some remain. But it was pretty bare-looking around the stone wall where they lived.) That realization took my breath away. The trees I had absolutely cherished destroyed? I like to hope that some of their root system remains and a little sapling somewhere will continue the lineage, but I don’t dare go by to look at my old house again, afraid to see what else might have been chopped down. I also feel much more attached to my Sassafras wand, knowing that I carry a piece of those trees I loved dearly.

Part of permaculture is planting for future generations. I hope all the fruit trees I planted will be left to mature and feed this family and any future owners. But many people wouldn’t even know all the medicinal herbs I added to the property or the medicinal properties of Sassafras.

You see, Sassafras was one of the most revered plants among the Native Americans and they used it for all sorts of ailments. When the first European settlers learned of its benefits, they began shipping it back to Europe, where it was treasured and made into wooden spoons among other things. The wood was also built into ships because it was considered lucky.

Me, I like to think of Sassafras as having watched over us all those years, along with the big oak tree at the opposite end of our property. We had so many wonderful trees we shared our lives with and I adored them all. I hope many of them survive and continue to flourish and I hope somewhere along the way, they teach the new human residents the ways of nature, like they taught me. Maybe it won’t be the parents that discover the magic. Maybe one of those 3 little kids of theirs is meant to hear the call.

May it be so.

Featured Photo by Kaitlan Balsam on Unsplash, the rest by me

The info on the importance of the Sassafras to the Native Americans and European settlers was gleaned from Healing Secrets of the Native Americans by Porter Shimer.

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