Do you know where your favorite seasonings come from before they end up in the bottle or bag in your local grocery store? Most are plant-based materials that have been part of our culinary toolkit for centuries. Spices were quite valuable commodities dating to the earliest days of international trade with many coming from faraway places.
But there are a number of local plants that add flavor to our favorite dishes, with many growing in our local woodlands and backyards. This is the first of a series of profiles of the most common of our local seasonings that serve our needs as well as that of many kinds of wildlife.
Sassafras is one of these common plants and gives us a classic Cajun spice – Filé. Hank Williams made it famous with the lyrics of his song “Jambalaya.” Take a look at the list of ingredients on your bottle of filé: you will find but one. Apparently, the Choctaw tribe of native Americans introduced Cajuns to this seasoning. The Choctaws use the finely-ground leaves to thicken soups. The term is French meaning “among other things.”
The leaves are not, however, the only part of Sassafras that we have come to appreciate. Root beer was originally derived from the roots of this plant and a fine red-brown hot or cold tea can also be enjoyed but in moderation. Native Americans also used extracts medicinally. But Sassafras feeds more than just humans, being a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail and Promethea Silkmoth.
Sassafras is also one of only two common plants in our landscape that has three distinctly shaped leaves on any given plant. See if you can find the three-lobed “trefoil,” the two-lobed “mitten” and the simple-shaped leaf. Red Mulberry has this same, three-leaf pattern, but that plant gives us a different kind of treat – yummy sweet berries!
Sassafras also provides rich color to the landscape, whether through the light-green leaves of spring and summer or the yellow to orange-red leaves of fall. The dainty shape of this understory tree adds great texture to any woodland but also grows well in full sunlight.
Hope to see you in our great outdoors!