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Sassafras trees wear mittens and do much more

love to take walks in the woods. Identifying native plants and bumping into those I haven’t seen in a while is a favorite past time. During a recent walk I was thrilled to find a small grove of Sassafras. The scientific name for the sassafras tree is Sassafras albidum. Other names include saxifrax, sassafrac, gumbo file’, green stick and cinnamon wood.

Sassafras belongs to the laurel family and is one of the few species of trees that has more than one kind of leaf on the same plant. On young trees, leaves take on their familiar mitten shape with one “thumb” lobe bending into a larger terminal lobe.

For years, sassafras was grown for the medicinal properties of the fragrant roots and bark but it is the outstanding fall color that should encourage you to bring it into the garden today. The bright green summer foliage is transformed in the fall to colors of orange/pink, yellow/red and even scarlet/purple.

Sassafras root and bark are sources of the flavorings for root beer and tea. File’ (ground sassafras leaves) is the traditional table condiment used on gumbo. The early Cajuns learned to use file’ from the Choctaw Indians of the Gulf coast, who used it to thicken soups.

You can make your own file’. In Tony Cachere’s cookbook, he says to harvest the leaves during a full moon. I have harvested small limbs in the fall of the year before the leaves start turning color. You can make file’ as follows:

• Cut small limbs from the tree in the fall before leaves turn color.

• Spray off the limbs with water.

• Hang the limbs in a cool, shady place to slowly dry.

• Remove leaves from the stem. If you are patient, remove the petioles.

• Crush by hand.

• Grind the leaves — For small batches, I use a blender. The dried leaves are ground until you get a fine powder.

• Sift the ground powder to remove larger pieces.

• Store the file’ in a well sealed jar.

Sassafras should be grown in full sun or partial shade. They prefer moist, well-drained acid soil but will tolerate drier sites. Richer fall colors are displayed on trees grown in full sun. This tree is not commonly sold in nurseries, but can be transplanted from a native wooded site. Sassafras does have a large taproot, so transplanting a small one will be more successful.

A tree that has fall color, makes tea, root beer, gumbo file’ and wears mittens. We are glad to have them.

Rebecca Bates is an MSU Extension-Lincoln County agent, and can be reached at 601-835-3460 or by e-mail at rebecca.bates@msstate.edu.