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A June Walk in the Woods
Both for exercise and mental health, I have been walking faithfully in the woods near my home, almost every day. Perhaps it is because I went to Nature Training School as a child, but I want to know the names of all the plants I encounter as I traipse through the forest. Many names I know, from that long ago training, and I learn more each time I walk and notice a plant I hadn't really "seen" before. Upon returning home, I look to my various resources to try and identify the newest plants that have captured my attention. I also look up the plants I do know, and try to enlarge my knowledge of their uses and history.
One plant that I am fond of is sassafras, Sassafras albidum. The fact that it has several different leaf shapes was one way it stuck in my mind as a child. This made it very distinctive, and easy to spot. The leaf may be one lobe, two (mitten shaped) or have three lobes. The two lobed leaf can even be a right or left mitten. Though it can grow into a large tree, there are often many small seedlings growing, just the right height for a child to be able to discover them. The root has been used medicinally, and in the 17th century, it was a major export from the colonies to England, where it found favor as an antidote for syphilis and gonorrhea. A tea was brewed from the root, and it was also used for flavoring beverages, as it has a root beer taste. However, because it was found to contain safrole, a carcinogen, it was banned by the FDA in 1960. This ban was overturned many years later, but some stilll feel it should be used cautiously, if at all. One way it is still used is for file powder, an ingredient that thickens gumbo. The leaves are dried and ground, and do not contain the safrole that can be present in the root.
Another root beer flavored plant is Wild Sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis. A member of the ginseng family, this plant was also used by native people for tea, as the rhizome has a root beer like flavor. The Cree people called it rabbit foot and recommended it for wounds and syphilis. It is often found in the same areas as saasafras. The flowers arise from the base of the plant, and become blue berries in summer. The plant has one main stem that is divided into three branching parts, making it easy to identify. It is used as a substitute for true sarsaparilla, which is Smilax sp. and native to Central America.
It is important to have a good guide when trying to identify plants in the wild. Another option is to take a course by someone well versed in identification. One person to check out is Russ Cohen firstname.lastname@example.org, who gives field talks about wild edibles and identifies them in situ. I have taken a couple of his walks, and on one he treated us to some hard candy he made with sarsaparilla root. Please be sure to know your plants before ever ingesting them!