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You’d think that a tree with the whimsical name “sassafras” ought to have a bit of spunk to it. You’d be right. Everything about the sassafras tree is quirky, offbeat, and, well, sassy. Its oddly twisting branches. Its brittle, orange wood. Its rainbow autumn hues. It’s pungent, spicy aroma.

And certainly its strangely shaped leaves.

No other native Michigan tree has foliage that even remotely resembles the striking, three-lobed leaves of the sassafras. Festooning its branches like miniature cartoon hands, they make sassafras the friendliest tree of the Michigan roadsides, seemingly always ready to shake your hand.

Not all sassafras leaves look the same, though. The variety of leaf shapes on a single tree is a distinctive trait of the sassafras. Besides the three-lobed kind, some leaves have two lobes—a large one and a smaller one, like a mitten—and others are simple ovals with no lobes at all.

Sassafras loves its own company and forms groves along woods edges, where it can soak in plenty of sunshine. Driving through a state game area earlier this week, I found myself winding through a virtual sassafras corridor. At a turn-off I pulled aside, got out of my car, and looked around me. Backlit by the October sun, a canopy of sassafras leaves glowed overhead like Japanese lanterns. Up the road and down it, golden groves of sassafras blazed against a background of dark green pines and multihued hardwoods.

Yellow is just one of many colors on the sassafras’s broad fall palette. Farther down the road, a dazzling collage of oranges, reds, and purples painted the trees. The wide color range is likely due to a number of factors—location, age, water, sunlight. For all I know, sassafras may even go through stages of coloration, deepening with time. Don’t quote me on that; it’s purely my speculation. What I can say with confidence is that, when you consider its varieties of form and pigmentation together, sassafras outstrips all other trees in Michigan. As for sheer beauty, in my book it holds its own against that monarch of autumn, the maple.

How sassy is the sassafras? The sass-factor doesn’t stop with the leaves. Break off a twig, or better yet, a small piece of root, and smell the spicy aroma. What does it remind you of? Think summertime and a dark, ice-cold soft drink with a big mound of vanilla ice cream floating on top. That’s right—sassafras is the source of the original root beer, or “sasparilla.”

And of course you’ve heard of sassafras tea, right? Pungent, hot, truly delicious, and so easy to make. Harvest a piece of the root—you don’t need much, maybe six inches of a good, thick section—then clean it, crunch it up a bit, and boil it in a quart of water until the liquid turns a deep orange-brown. Sweeten to taste and enjoy.

Don’t, however, make it your daily hot beverage. The tonic benefits of sassafras tea are well rooted in folk medicine; however, safrole, the tea’s main flavoring ingredient, was declared a carcinogen by the FDA in the 1970s. So before you drink that first cup—or before you decide not to—read this balanced, informative article. You’ll appreciate both the qualified, cautionary advice and the reassurance.

The sassafras. It’s the sassiest tree going, and so much a part of our state that its mitten-shaped leaves even resemble the Lower Peninsula. Used in everything from Native American bows, to perfumes, to pharmaceutics, to beverages, and beyond, this flamboyant harlequin of October is a tree of endless fascination, and an autumn glory of the Michigan backroads.

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Written by Dave.