A few weeks ago I wrote about autumn olive and some other invasive species on my property. A week later I discovered several small burning bush plants along the driveway. Hidden all summer amongst all the greenery, they practically jump into view now in their red-leaved splendor. I think they are very pretty and delicate looking, adding a welcome intensity to the dull border of the driveway. Unfortunately, the species I have, the winged euonymus, is also considered invasive. While I marveled at the corky wings projecting from the stems, I felt frustrated by yet another problem plant. So I decided to focus my attention on two of my favorite plants at Halcyon: sassafras and spicebush. They are both native.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is an easy tree to recognize, and I have always delighted in teaching its classic mitten-shaped leaf to students. Actually its leaves come in three forms that are usually found on the same tree: oval, two-lobed (the mitten), and three-lobed. Its flowers are very pale yellow, and its fall fruit is a dark blue drupe on a red stalk that is eaten by at least 18 species of birds. I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never noticed these fruits. That we’ve only a few sassafras trees is a poor excuse.
All parts of the plant contain a substance called safrole. This substance used to be used to make tea and root beer, and as an ingredient in toothpastes, soaps, mouthwashes, and chewing gum. However, it was discovered to be a liver carcinogen, and the FDA declared it illegal to market in 1976. I’ve had students tell me of their grandparents drinking sassafras tea all their lives. This helps me go back in time mentally to imagine Halcyon and its species being used in such different ways than today. In colonial days sassafras was highly used in medicinal treatments. Sir Walter Raleigh first exported sassafras to England, and for a brief time in the 17th century sassafras was second only to tobacco in exports. Before this Native Americans were also using sassafras for medicinal purposes.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a common understory shrub of bottomland forests. I never noticed it until one spring when I was “off our beaten track” and saw its delicate yellow flowers hanging like a mist in the air. With its thin trunk and twigs blending into the late winter dull background, it really did seem like the blossoms were floating. It was magical. I fell in love with spicebush. It became the poster child last spring for my impetus to understand better my non-human neighbors at Halcyon. I have since found it in a few other areas of the property, and I am starting to recognize it without its flowers. The delicate lemon smell of a crushed leaf will confirm my guess.
Spicebush berries are a gorgeous, bright red color. They are also a drupe and appear in late summer. In colonial times the fruits were dried and powdered, after removing the seeds, and used in place of allspice. I collected a few berries to dry this fall, but have since misplaced them. I am sure to find some small dark wrinkled ‘things’ someday and wonder what they are. I will try again next year with hopefully some methodology to my ‘madness’ so that I don’t lose track of them.
Tea was also made from the leaves, twigs, and bark of spicebush to induce sweating and break fevers. The leaves turn yellow in the fall. Overall spicebush is a gorgeous, understated shrub that I am delighted to have growing at Halcyon. Growing, I might add, without any help from me.
What I didn’t know before researching this post is that the sassafras and spicebush are relatives, both being in the laurel family. I like that they are both favorites of mine and related to each other. While I am making my Thanksgiving dishes, I will wonder if past inhabitants of Halcyon made sassafras tea or needed to drink tea from some spicebush leaves to break a fever. Did anyone use the dried berries of the spicebush to flavor their pies? These special natives continue to nourish many species of birds, small mammals, and insects. The feasting by such animals cannot create the same sense of tradition for them that humans can attain with our long-lived lives and overlapping of generations. Animals just know what to eat by instinct. But I like to imagine that somehow these creatures know of favored spots to eat, grow, mate, and die, and I hope to keep natives like sassafras and spicebush around to create such favored spots that will be used for generations.