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September 26, 2012

For years I have admired the quirky Sassafras saplings that grow all over the Holly Hill Farm wood lot. It’s fast growing and the trunk often twists in the most interesting forms. It is just the sort of wood I’d love to incorporate into my furniture except for one thing. It’s extremely brittle. I don’t know whether that is because it is so fast growing, but Stag Horn Sumac shares both these characteristics. And any Oak, the slowest growing trees around are anything but brittle, so it makes sense to me. In any case, while cleaning out the ox barn (my shop) I ran across a few old pieces of Sassafras that I must have collected before I was aware of the brittleness issue. These pieces were seasoned at least a year, perhaps longer, and they felt much sturdier. So I shaved off the outer bark (first with my drawknife, but that kept diving into the wood, then with a spokeshave, which gave me more control) and had some very handsome walking sticks. I also had a lapful of marvelously fragrant shavings.
Sassafras was long used medicinally. During colonial times it was one of the most important exports that America had. It has fallen out of favor since the discovery that one of its essential oils is safrole, which is considered a carcinogen. But it had been used as a stimulant, a pain reliever, an astringent, and a treatment for rheumatism. It was also used to treat the skin lesions that came from syphilis. It was made into a tea and was the root in root beer when combined with molasses and fermented. Nowadays, root beer is made with a synthetic sassafras flavoring. It has also been used in Cajun cooking as a thickener for soups and gumbos.
If you are walking through the woods and see a tree with leaves that look like dinosaur footprints, take a leaf or small twig and crush it with your fingers and give it a sniff. If it smells a bit like root beer you likely have a sassafras tree. (Other trees that have a fragrance worth finding are Beech – if you’ve ever chewed Beech Nut gum, it’ll take you back- and Red Cedar will remind you of hamsters, if you are old enough. Of course there are others like balsam, but I don’t use that for my furniture.)
After shaving off the outer bark, I gave them a quick sanding and a coat of oil. Unfortunately the oil blocks the aroma, but it gives it a richer, darker color.
So, I am reassessing sassafras and this winter I will be on the lookout for more sassafras to collect and season, and maybe some will end up making crazy table legs, chair backs, and who knows what else.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2012 6:42 pm

    How far south do you think it grows? I like the smell of rootbeer.

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