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Identifying Trees By Their Leaves: Three Different Leaf Shapes of the Sassafras Tree
A Mystery In My Yard
by Jackie D. Kimball
Four years ago I planted four shrubs. One died and I pulled up the decayed matter.The next spring I saw what I thought was the fourth shrub shooting back up after all. It was in a secluded place between a huge October Rose and Daddy's old tin shed. I hadn't noticed it before. I didn't give it much thought until late summer when I was spraying some weed killer nearby.
A glance in the direction of the newest shrub puzzled me. The leaves were different from the other shrubs. On closer examination, I realized that this was not a shrub at all, but appeared to be a tree with no recognizable leaf features for identification.In fact this new sapling ,now reaching about two feet, had two different kind of leaves. Apparently it was a volunteer, or planted by a bird, or the wind.I had much work to do, and the day was getting hotter, so I left the tree and thought about it no more.
The next year the tree grew by leaps and bounds. It was a slender tree, and now had three distinctly different leaf shapes.Obviously not the shrub I thought it was, but what? Some leaf shapes were oval, some two lobed and in the shape of a mitten, and some were three lobed and resembled some kind of oak leaf.
Using my Google search engine ,and a trip to the library for book on tree identification gave me a positive identification of the tree. Not some kind of freak occurance, but a well known tree most easily identified by its three different kind of leaf shapes on one tree. It was a sassafras tree. Ironic. I live in Louisiana , and the crushed dried leaves of the sassafras tree are used to make file, a gumbo seasoning. Sorry folks, but I had never seen one.The librarian told me that they are rare in our area because of the soil . Since I live next to a bayou, soil conditions were more favorable.
I don't really like where it is located, but I learned that because of it's long taproot, moving the tree would most likely kill it. I learned that shoots will come up and perhaps I can move a young sapling, and make sure it is growing before I move the sassafras tree which is now about eighteen feet tall.It's diameter is only about three or four inches, so it just might make it.
Young Sassafras Shoot
Identifying a Sassafras Tree
Sassafras is the laurel family (or genus lauraceae).
LEAVES and BARK As I mentioned, the tree has unusual foliage with three distinctly different leaf patterns on the same tree.The leaves are oval, bilobed (tsometime referred to as the mitten shape) and trilobed.The tree has slender branches, and depending on soil and weather conditions can grow very quickly in it's sapling years.Most of the trees will grow about fifty feet, but has been known to grow much higher. The bark on a mature tree is reddish or orange/brown.
IN THE SPRING Take a walk in the springtime before the leaves appear and you'll note that the sassafras tree has little yellow flowers with a very fragrant sweet smell.
IN THE SUMMER The leaves are a bright green and are about four to seven inches in length.
IN THE FALL The foliage is beautiful in crimson, gold, orange ,and sometimes purple.Female trees produce a berry on a long red stem if there is also a male tree. THE BERRIES ARE NOT EDIBLE!
SMELL the twigs. Break off a tiny twig. It will have a rootbeer smell. One person said that he felt it was more of a FRUIT LOOP smell, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Especially upon crushing the leaves , you will smell this unusual smell.
Identifying the Sassafras Tree
Can you really make rootbeer from a sassafras tree?
Yes , you can. There are recipes passed down from generation to generation, and I used to buy the sassafras concentrate and make my own. However ,in the late sixties the Food and Drug Administration banned the sell of any beverages or foods containing sassafras because of a carcinogenic substance called saffrole. Sassafras is also a blood thinner, and could potentially cause serious problems.
I stopped making rootbeer because the rootbeer concentrate was no longer marketed. I don't plan to make any with my tree. I might crush a leaf and put it in a gumbo .At any rate, I'm enjoying the lovely fragrance when I touch the leaves. I've been told as the tree matures, the smell is even more intense.