Curious, it is, that while some trees evoke only a shrug, others inspire speculation, and exploration, and great trans-Atlantic expeditions, and stir the very highest of hopes. Consider the sassafras.
Sassafras grows commonly in the woodlands of Martha’s Vineyard. It grows among the white and black oaks and pitch pines, along trails, and on the edges of woods roads. Birds eat its berries and plant the tree here and there. It wears a speckled orange hue in fall, and in winter, distinguishes itself by the deep furrows in its brown, rust-colored bark. With practice, one can easily spot the sassafras in the winter woods.
In summer, however, sassafras is unmistakable. The leaves of the sassafras take three forms. With a smooth, toothless edge, the leaf may be a simple, one-lobed, oval, it may be two-lobed, and take the odd, asymmetrical form of a mitten, and it may be three-lobed, and take the form of a mitten with a thumb on each side. Once you spot a sassafras leaf — pick it. Pluck it, crumple it, and smell it. Held beneath the nose, the crushed sassafras leaf emits a sweet, almost citrus, fragrance: the essence of sassafras.
If you happen to have crumpled your sassafras leaf along, say, the dusty edge of Litchfield Road, and if perhaps you are thirsty, and have underestimated the heat of the day and left your canteen in the truck, then consider taking that leaf and chewing it. In his masterpiece, A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie notes that chewing the sassafras leaf produces a “mucilaginous slime.” Slime, or more particularly, saliva. Chewing sassafras stimulates salivation, which, on a hot day, offers just enough relief to get back to the canteen for a swig of water.
Peattie describes other, real virtues of sassafras. Its wood is strong, and shrinks less as it dries than any other hardwood. It makes good fences, and was valued in boatbuilding. Sassafras makes a handsome piece of furniture, as those know who admired the beautiful sassafras bench that Larry Hepler exhibited at the 2008 Martha’s Vineyard Livestock Show and Fair.
The wood may be good, yet it is its smell, its aroma, which once made the sassafras among the most valuable of trees. Specifically, it was the oil yielded by the bark of sassafras roots that was so prized. In his book, The Enduring Shore, Paul Schneider recounts the exploits of the Gosnold expedition as they searched for sassafras. After stopping here and there on Martha’s Vineyard, Gosnold camped on Cuttyhunk, and his crew cut up cords of sassafras for transport back to England. There sassafras fetched a rich sum, as it was considered a panacea. It was reputed to cure all manner of ailments and diseases, syphilis among them.
As it turned out, sassafras held no cure. Boiling its spring-dug roots makes just a pot of sassafras tea, which some still enjoy. And yet, for some reason, the crushed leaves of this aromatic tree still emit some inexplicable ether of hope. Sassafras still evokes belief that there is more to the tree than is really there.
Take, for instance, the sassafras trees of Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary. To find an entire grove of them, ramble out on the tumbling trail to the Vineyard Sound beach, take a right upon reaching the beach, and ascend the incline to the brown trail. The brown trail forms a loop around the neck. Travel counterclockwise, and find yourself in a grove of solid sassafras. Wind and weather have worn them. Their stunted, serpentine stems contort themselves, striving to reach open sunlight above.
A winter visit here shows the elements that these trees must face. Yet a summer visit offers something special. Reach up to grab a twig, peer at the leaves, and notice that these sassafras trees are unique. These sassafras trees, all of them, have five-lobed leaves!
Upon seeing this, I, too was smitten with the unreasonable hope that sassafras inspires. Could I have found a new species? Or a subspecies, perhaps? A genetic variation? A horticultural variety? A mutant? Islands, after all, are known for producing new species and new varieties.. Could I add my name to the Linnaen nomenclature, Sassafras albidum subsp. vineyardia A. Moore?
No. Dashing my sassafras-induced hopes, Tim Boland of the Polly Hill Arboretum informed me that I had found no new species. Though rare, the five-lobed leaves are most likely a response to the severe stress that the weather puts upon this particular stand of sassafras: salt air, bright sun, strong winds.
Discouraged, deflated, dejected, I realized that I had made no discovery. I am no botanist. Yet, come spring, I will sniff another sassafras leaf, and think, well, forget about Boland. What if ...?
With sassafras, there is always hope.
Adam Moore is executive director of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. Suzan Bellincampi is on leave.