You Can See, Smell and Taste the 'Mitten Tree'

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By Karen Menard

Waving its bright orange “mittens” from high in the canopy, the sassafras tree is a beautiful autumn sight.

The species is unique in that it has three distinct leaf patterns that grow together on the same tree –unlobed (oval shaped), bi-lobed (mitten shaped), and tri-lobed. It is one of the most brilliantly colored trees in the fall, turning yellow, orange and also flaming red.

The sassafras is also recognized for its aromatic scents, a fragrance memorable enough that the early settlers actually described it. Most would agree that sassafras bark smells much like cinnamon, its roots like root beer, its leaves and stems like a sweet lemon.

This tree actually played a significant part in the history of both Europe and North America in the seventeenth century because of its culinary and medicinal qualities, and soon after, a medicinal beverage called “saloop” became a major export commodity to England. Over the years, parts of this tree were also used in the creation of root beer and tea. Today, sassafras is no longer used in commercially produced beverages; safer artificial flavorings are now substituted.

Wildlife such as eastern kingbirds, great crested flycatchers, wild turkeys, thrushes and all species of woodpeckers use the dark purple fruits as an important food source.  Small to medium size mammals like groundhogs will even climb to the top of a sassafras tree to get a taste of the fruit. The tree itself is a host plant to the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, as well as the promethea silkmoth, which can both be found in northwest Ohio.

Where to Find It

Autumn is a great time to explore the parks looking for the beautiful shapes and colors of sassafras. This species typically grows in sandy or loamy, well-drained soil and is mostly found in the Oak Openings region. The best places to find it are the yellow and purple trails at Wildwood and the orange and red trails at Oak Openings Preserve.

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