Fall color is here, so it’s time to champion one of the Grump’s favorite native trees for fall color — sassafras. Its peachy-orange leaves help make autumn the favorite season of all discerning gardeners.
Native to the eastern U.S., sassafras (Sassafras albidum) stands out for several different qualities. First, it expresses (and you’ll want to remember this term to impress your friends that you really are into book learning) foliar trimorphism. This means that its leaves have three different shapes. Some are oval; some have two lobes and look like either right-handed or left-handed mittens; and some have three lobes. All three appear on the same tree, as you can tell from the photo above.
Second, all parts of the tree are aromatic — just tear a leaf and sniff it. Sassafras tea is a traditional country drink made from boiling the bark of sassafras roots. Grumpy thinks it tastes like root beer, which logically, it should. I remember as a kid making it with my Dad, feeling a little guilty about digging up those roots and skinning them. I hope the tree had plenty more.
What I didn’t know at the time was that sassafras tea made this way contains a potentially dangerous, naturally occurring compound called safrole. A couple of cups during your lifetime won’t hurt you, but regular consumption has been linked to liver cancer and something even worse — testicular shrinkage. The Grump assures you he drank only one cup.
Fortunately, you can buy sassafras concentrates like Pappy’s that are safrole-free.You can order Pappy’s from their website, but I’ve also seen it in plenty of grocery stores. It tastes like the real thing, only without the shrinkage. George Constanza would be relieved.
A third cool thing about sassafras is that young trees have bright green bark. This makes them easy to spot in winter woods. Successfully transplanting one from the wild isn’t easy, because the roots are sparse and stringy. The smaller the tree is, the more luck you’ll have. I wouldn’t dig a tree any taller than 4 feet. Some garden centers carry sassafras grown in containers. You can also order it from Mail Order Natives.
Most sassafras trees are understory plants in the woods, quickly growing 20-25 feet tall, although they can eventually grow 40 feet or so. Here’s a photo of a nice one growing next to our headquarters building at Southern Living.
Sassafras likes full or partial sun, although you’ll get better fall color in full sun. Give it moist, acid, well-drained soil that contains a good bit of organic matter.
Here’s an interesting tidbit for those who constantly battle pests. Japanese beetles find sassafras leaves irresistible, so if you have lots of Japanese beetles where you live, good luck.
On the other hand, deer don’t seem to like sassafras foliage. Pick your pest.
A final warning to manly guys out there. Don’t drink any more sassafras tea made the traditional way. No one will believe shrinkage happened because the pool water was cold.
Totally Unrelated Question
Has anyone seen my son floating in a balloon over Denver, Colorado? I don’t know why he crawled in there. FYI, be sure to watch our new reality show: Five Geeks in a Balloon.
It’ll star Grumpy, his wife, his son, his cat, and a different guest star every week. Our first guest will be Matt LeBlanc, formerly Joey on Friends. Yeah, like he has anything better to do.