Sassafras

(Sassafras albidum)

WHERE DID SASSAFRAS GET ITS MITTENS?

Persian and Flemish Folklore

Long, long ago, the first people began life as a double tree. God separated the two trees, gave them souls, turned the branches into arms and legs, and made the crowns into heads filled with the gift of knowledge. Other trees also wanted to become people. They tried, but didn’t make it. However, some of their leaves, like sassafras', are shaped like human hands, showing our link to trees.

In Arkansas, superstitious people never burned sassafras wood. They thought that someone would die when the wood cracked and sputtered.

Fire inspired many other superstitions: in Massachusetts, people believed that the flame would take the shape of the leaves of the tree you were burning.

Sassafras is a genus of three extant and one extinct species of deciduous trees in the family Lauraceae, native to eastern North America and eastern Asia.

Sassafras trees grow from 15–35 m (50–120 feet) tall and 70–150 cm (2.5–6 feet) in diameter, with many slender branches, and smooth, orange-brown bark. The branching is sympodial. The bark of the mature trunk is thick, red-brown, and deeply furrowed. The wood is light, hard and sometimes brittle. It can be used to make a serviceable bow if properly worked. All parts of the plants are very fragrant. The species are unusual in having three distinct leaf patterns on the same plant, unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three pronged; rarely the leaves can be five-lobed). They have smooth margins and grow 7–20 cm long by 5–10 cm broad. The young leaves and twigs are quite mucilaginous, and produce a citrus-like scent when crushed. The tiny, yellow flowers are five-petaled and bloom in the spring; they are dioeciously, with male and female flowers on separate trees. The fruit are blue-black, egg-shaped, 1 cm long, produced on long, red-stalked cups, and mature in late summer. The largest Sassafras tree in the United States is located in Owensboro, Kentucky.

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