Sassafras

Lauraceae (Laurel family)

Description: Small to medium-sized deciduous tree with dark green twigs on young branches. Leaves variable in size and form with distinctive 2-lobed, 3-lobed, or unlobed margins. Male and female flowers on separate plants appear before the leaves emerge. Fruit a dark blue drupe on a red club-shaped stalk. Flowers Mar.-Apr.; fruits June-July.

Habitat/range: Wide variety of forests, fields, and woodland borders. Common. Widespread in eastern United States.

Taxonomy: Sassafras is a genus of 3 species, 2 in east Asia, 1 in eastern North America. Red mulberry (Morus rubra) also has variably lobed leaves but differs in having sharply toothed (rather than smooth) leaf margins.

Ecology: Sassafras is an early succes-sional species that frequently colonizes abandoned fields and woodland borders. A shade-intolerant species, sassafras grows quickly in full sun, but often dies early after being overtopped by competing vegetation. Fires and other types of disturbance that maintain an open canopy benefit sassafras. Flies, wasps, and other insects visit and pollinate the dense clusters of small, yellowish green flowers in early spring. A good seed crop is produced every 2-3 years. Birds quickly remove the ripe, high-fat-content (and high-energy) fruits. The seeds typically require an overwintering period (stratification) before germinating in spring. Spreads vegetatively by root sprouts.

Wildlife: Sassafras is one of several larval host plants for spicebush swallowtail butterflies. Female spicebush swallowtails choose smooth-leaved sassafras plants over pubescent-leaved plants to lay their eggs on. Larvae (caterpillars) fed pubescent leaves have slower growth rates and a higher mortality than larvae fed smooth leaves. Thus, leaf pubescence in sassafras likely reduces herbivore damage by caterpillars of spicebush swallowtails.

Uses: Oil of sassafras is no longer used to flavor root beer, tobacco, chewing gum, and perfumes because one of its constituents, safrole, is a suspected carcinogen. Sassafras is an attractive landscape plant in open, sunny areas, but is sensitive to ozone.

Sorbus americana Marsh.

mountain ash

Rosaceae (Rose family)

Description: Small to medium-sized deciduous tree recognizable by its large, pinnately compound leaves, flat-topped inflorescences of densely packed small white flowers, and striking clusters of orange-red fruits that persist into winter. Flowers June-July; fruits Sept.-Oct.

Habitat/range: Forest openings, woodland borders, and roadsides at high elevations. Spruce-fir forests, balds, and high-elevation rock outcrops. Common. Newfoundland west to Minnesota, south in mountains to Georgia.

Taxonomy: Mountain ash is the only species of the genus Sorbus in the mountains and piedmont. Despite its common name, it's not a member of the ash (Oleaceae) family, but is in the rose family along with trees such as apples, peaches, plums, and cherries.

Ecology: Mountain ash is a slow-growing, short-lived, shade-intolerant tree that is most abundant in forest openings and other early successional habitats. Over the last half-century, mountain ash has become more abundant in spruce-fir forests due to openings created by the large-scale dieback of Fraser fir. In good fruiting years, dense clusters of orange-red fruits cover the tree.

Wildlife: Deer feed on the leaves in summer and browse the twigs and buds in winter (as do moose at more northerly latitudes). The fruits are a favorite of black bears and red squirrels. Songbirds, such as evening grosbeaks, American robins, and cedar waxwings, feast on the fruits, occasionally getting a "buzz" from fermented fruit. Because the seeds quickly pass through the guts of birds (often within 30 minutes), most are probably dispersed fairly short distances. Fruits tend to persist on mountain ash well into winter, making them an important food source for year-round residents at high elevations.

Uses: Native Americans used the fruits, rich in vitamin C, as a tea to prevent scurvy. The pectin-rich fruits also make a good jelly. Prior to ripening, the fruits are high in tartaric acid and are unpalatable, but after a few frosts, they become less bitter and are edible.

Symplocos tinctoria (L.) L'Her.

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