The warm humid air carries a sweet spicy aroma as I approach the small trees growing along the road. Because I live in rattlesnake country I use the hook on the end of my walking stick to pull the branches to me instead of wading through the weeds. Taking a bit of the fresh leaf and rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger releases even more of the aromatic oils. Sassafras has one of the most pleasant fragrances found in nature. To me it’s the strongest identifying quality of this very useful tree.
I suppose that my first experience with Sassafras is the preschool memory of my dad coming home from work with the root bark. I remember that he held it out for me to smell. Then he put it a pot of water that was simmering on the stove and the whole house smelled like warm root beer. That was late Fall and the memory of that experience is just as strong as it ever was. But today I have a different purpose for the sweet oils of the Sassafras tree. I plucked a few more leaves and began to crush them up in my hands. I rub the resulting liquid on exposed skin and tuck the bruised leaves under the brim of my hat. The fragrance helps hide me from the mosquitoes that lurk in the shade. Thanks to my grandfather for teaching me this trick while out caring for the cattle.
Sassafras is leaf was formally used for the flavoring in gumbo! Now, I have not been able to enjoy this one personally and gumbo from a commercial source must not contain Sassafras by law. In fact it’s banned from all commercial production due the risk of cancer from the essential oil. ( And yet Philip Morris can still sell cigarettes on every street corner. ) We haven’t been able to use it commercially since 1979. Before that root beer and root beer candy was made with natural extracts and real sugar.
These days this wonderful tree is still sold as an ornamental plant. The large purplish blue berries are a favorite of songbirds. I have to say that I’ve noticed that the drop in the bobwhite and drop in popularity of natural Sassafras flavored products seems to coincide. It’s worth propagating the tree just for the wildlife value alone.
The one commercial use that the FDA allows us to have is the exotic lumber value. Sassafras hartwood is considered to be very durable and is absolutely beautiful. As a forest owner you could probably do pretty well by producing a handful of timber sized Sassafras trees per year. A quick Google search turned up asking prices around ten dollars per board foot. So a rough value estimate of an average Sassafras wood 24 inches thick, 8 inches wide and 30 feet tall came out to around $6K per tree. ( This was a very quick and very rough estimate and it’s been 30 years since I actually had to estimate the value of timber so I am not positive about that estimate. ) Purists may not consider the commercial use of lumber to be foraging. To those good folks, I need to point out that foraging is using the resources of the land to feed yourself and others. Since $6k will buy a lot groceries it counts in my book. And if done right it will open up resources for renewal of the lower canopy to thrive and mature. And that estimate doesn’t really include the possibility of novelties made from pieces that a mill might reject such as lathe turned jewelry and bespoke canes.
Overall, it turns out that Sassafras has a lot to offer and we haven’t even considered the medical uses. ( Mainly because of the FDA ban ) I may revisit this one in the fall when I’m in the mood for a homemade root beer!
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