Sassafras, a Workhorse of a Tree

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p31_n06_Sassafras_Trees_HeffernanThis time of year our beloved sugar maples are getting all the attention. And, one trip down Main Street demonstrates that they sure deserve all the hoopla since their fall foliage is spectacular. But, the maples aren’t the only ones to participate in this display, and one of my hiking buddies has been pleading the case for a lesser known tree, the sassafras, to get a little more attention. The sassafras is common in Suffield, found along roadsides, fences and fields. It has the distinction of producing three different types of leaves all on the same tree. Some leaves are oval, some mitten shaped and some are three lobed. The mitten shape is my favorite and I can’t help but wonder if the tree puts that one forth to appeal to the child in all of us. This time of year the leaves have turned yellow and are adding to the tapestry of our little town.

The sassafras is not just another pretty face, as it was once used to make everyone’s favorite beverage, root beer. As kids we consumed gallons of the sweet stuff. Straight up, on the rocks, in floats, we loved it. My parents were all about convenience and they found out that there was a soda delivery service nearby which was happy to get us in its clutches. So, every Wednesday morning we would listen for the screeching brakes as the soda man arrived with a case of soda to get us through the week. Root beer, orange, cream, birch beer, grape and cola, you name it, it paired beautifully with our PB and J’s on Wonder bread. That’s how we quenched our thirst back in the day before the advent of water bottles, dentists and dehydration. But, more than that, the arrival of our soda stockpile enabled us to learn some important life skills as some flavors were more coveted, and the soda had to be divided between all my siblings and it had to last a full seven days. Or that was the plan, according to my folks and they did not want to be bugged about it. So, if my memory serves me, we learned about negotiation, deferred gratification, bartering, impulsivity and supply and demand. We became adaptable and learned to drink it flat or bubbly, warm or chilled. And, those were important lessons with real world application.

So as I trudge around town, I keep my eyes peeled for sassafras trees. One look and I conjure up images of root beer floats and try to suppress my subsequent Pavlovian response. And if the leaf shape, and connection to root beer are not appealing enough, I recently read that the twigs can be used as tooth brushes. That’s handy to know for the next time I am out in the woods in the wee hours, after a day of consuming sugary drinks and looking for a clean and minty feeling. Mums the word if you see Dr. K!

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