Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 25, 2007

Stop and Smell the Sassafras

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:42 pm

  I suppose it was a dream.  I mean, I know it was, but it seemed so real. There we were in a grand room festooned with elaborate tapestries.  A Cajun chef was sitting at the far end and next to him was a frilly old Englishman named Mr. Wilmont. Don’t ask me how I know these things -you just take such facts for granted when dreaming.  The Englishman sorta looked like William Shakespeare and the chef resembled my grade school principal.  Oddly enough, my real principle was a large Greek man, but no matter. The entity to my left was a giant caterpillar with black, white and yellow stripes and two tremendous fake eyes on his back.  I think the large larva was sitting, but didn’t feel comfortable turning around to confirm my belief. He was mumbling some incoherent phrase over and over again.

   I’m not sure why I was there at the table with the trio. They didn’t pay any attention to me anyway.  It’s a good thing, because for some reason I was wearing pajamas with a very embarrassing rip in the crotch.  Gradually I realized that the discussion was revolving around a small potted tree called a Sassafras.  The Brit kept saying “none,” the Cajun “one,” and the caterpillar kept monotonously repeating the word “toof.” All were gesturing toward the leaves of the tiny tree sitting in the middle of the table.  At that moment I woke up.

  I was, you see, looking up some background information about the Sassafras tree last night and must have looked at one too many web sites before crawling off to dreamland.  This shrubby tree has long been a favorite of mine, and I renewed my acquaintance with one yesterday. Glowing with buttery saffron radiance, the autumn leaves are unmatched by even the fiery reds of the maples.  I ripped off a few of the stunning leaves and crushed the living tar out of them. Then, lifting the mangled mass to my nostrils, I inhaled deeply to take in the wonderful lemony smell.  Taking a scent pause with a few Sassafras leaves is better therapy than stopping to smell the roses.

 I should have left it at that.  They smell good, and that’s enough.  No, I had to take it one step further and “document” the leaves by taking a picture.  It was not enough to just snap an autumn calendar scene, either; I had to take a view that showed the three types of leaves found on this tree. It took a while, but here it is.  You will note that the leaf furthest to the left has a simple elliptical shape, the one next to it has two side lobes, and the third to the right looks like a mitt.  I prefer the Michigan shaped leaf myself, but the Sassafras can’t make up its mind and produces all three types equally.  This was undoubtedly the subject my nighttime friends were discussing.  They were all correct regarding the subject of lobes, although the caterpillar’s odd version of “two” resulted from his sideways mouth movement.

  Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars feed on the leaves of Sassafras and can be found on the trees in late summer. The larvae roll themselves up in the leaf as a day shelter and their large fake eyespots serve to frighten inquisitive birds who pry the resting spot open. So, having a giant caterpillar sitting in on the table talk makes sense in a dreamy sort of way, but the Englishman’s presence was more of a stretch.

  One of the useless facts I uncovered was an early reference to a Sassafras tree in the garden of a Mr. Wilmont in 1633 England.  That was it – a lone fact in a sea of knowledge. Here’s an early engraving of a Sassafras dating from that early time.  This is the image that no doubt inspired my vision of the tiny potted tree on the table. It is fascinating to know, however, that the whole reason this American tree was featured in English gardens and botanical books was due to its many charming qualities.  The plant was widely exported to the Old World from the New. Every part of the sassafras was, and still is, utilized. Sassafras root bark was used for making tea and root beer, the wood yielded yellow dye, and the leaves flavored effervescent drinks.  A whole host of medicinal qualities are attributed to the magic tree.

  Crushed Sassafras leaves are used today as a thickening agent in Louisiana dishes – this is where the Greek Cajun guy comes into the dreamscape. Sassafras powder is called file (pronounced fee-lay) and it is a crucial ingredient in making gumbo.  I watched an episode of Alton Brown’s food channel show one time where he visited a File maker near Baton Rouge. The guy was dumping handfuls of dried Sassafras leaves into a large wooden trough and pummeling them with a masher until they were rendered into dust.  This dust was mixed with a few secret ingredients and packaged as gen-u-ine Fee-lay.

  Alton scooped out a handful of the raw product and savored the juicy fruit/eucalyptus/lemony aroma as we, the television audience, looked on.  I just want you to know that you can do the same thing right here in S.E. Michigan, but do it quickly before the leaves fall.

  Now that I have this Sassafras thing out of my head, I wonder if that talking bobcat will re-appear in my dream tonight.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress