The Life of a Tree: The Aquinnah sassafrass

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A core sample of the Aquinnah sassafras reveals that the wood inside its thick bark has nearly 100 rings; it started growing around 1918, the end of World War I. —Stacey Rupolo

This is the last in a series of articles that have featured unique and old trees across Martha’s Vineyard — one tree for each town. Each article has related the natural history of the tree to historical events that the tree has witnessed.

Sprinkle its filé — the spice made from its dried and crumbled leaves — on a steaming pot of gumbo. Steep its shaved roots in a boiling kettle of tea. Store its aromatic logs in the hold of a ship. These are just some of uses for the most fragrant of the native trees of Martha’s Vineyard, the sassafras.

The Aquinnah sassafras grows at Gay Head Moraine, a Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank property off Lobsterville Road in Aquinnah. A lesser-known property among the Land Bank’s conservation areas, the 103-acre Gay Head Moraine ought to be high on any list of lands to be hiked. In a short time, a visitor might take a bracing hike on a loop trail that climbs the rugged hill of the moraine, crosses streams, skirts the edges of ponds and bogs, and offers smashing views of Menemsha and Prospect Hill. Along this loop trail, not far from the trailhead, grows the Aquinnah sassafras.

The scientific name of sassafras is Sassafras albidum. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the range of sassafras extends from the woods of east Texas north to central Michigan, east to Cape Cod and the islands, and south to Florida. In the summer, sassafras is unmistakable. These trees bear three distinct kinds of leaves: leaves that are oval, leaves that are shaped like a mitten, and leaves that have three lobes, looking a bit like a rounded trident. In some places on Martha’s Vineyard, some sassafras trees even sport five-lobed leaves.

Crumple a leaf, smell it, and be rewarded by the sweet aroma. Picking a trailside sassafras leaf and smelling its fragrance is one of the many little rewards of rambling about on one of the Island’s trails. During the 1602 expedition of Bartholomew Gosnold, however, the party exploring Martha’s Vineyard looked to sassafras for far more than just a refreshing sniff. Paul Schneider describes this well in “The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.”

Of all the plants to be collected, Mr. Schneider writes, “the greatest of these was the sassafras, which was something of a rage in Europe as a cure for the ‘French Pox.’ But syphilis wasn’t the only thing the root in root beer supposedly could fix. Not long after their arrival, when one of the crew ‘had taken a great surfeit by eating the bellies of dog fish, a very delicious meat,’ he was cured by powdered sassafras root.” Mr. Schneider reports that Gosnold sailed back for England having stuffed the hold of his ship full of sassafras wood.

You can make sassafras tea from the shaved-off bark of the sassafras roots. Filé, a thickening spice that is used in gumbo, is made from sassafras leaves that are dried and then crushed with a mortar and pestle. It is somewhat surprising that filé is not readily available on Martha’s Vineyard, not made locally or used in local cuisine.

Sassafras is found all across Martha’s Vineyard. It grows deep in the woods, in dry and wet areas. It grows on the edges of trails and on dusty dirt roads; it sprouts up in old farm fields. It usually begins growing in areas where there is open sunlight, and does not often germinate in areas that are already shaded. At the Gay Head Moraine, sassafras trees grow right along the loop trail. In winter, the trees are readily identified by their reddish-brown, deeply furrowed bark.

The Aquinnah sassafras grows at the wooded base of a prominent, open hill. The tree is perhaps 40 feet tall, and is 17½ inches in diameter. Of that diameter, two inches are due solely to the cork-like bark. A core of the Aquinnah sassafras revealed that the tree is at least 90 years old.

Timeline

1918

From the branches of a sassafras tree that had sprung up on the edge of an old pasture, a robin plucks a dark-blue drupe. This drupe is the seed of the Aquinnah sassafras tree. The droppings of this robin land at the base of the hill, and the deposited seed is thus planted. Men of Gay Head return to town after service in World War I. Governor Samuel McCall dedicates a plaque at the Aquinnah Town Hall commemorating the fact that in proportion to its size, Gay Head sent more men to service in World War I than any other town in New England.

1926

A green, vigorous, upward-thrusting shoot, the Aquinnah sassafras has grown to four feet in height. It consists of one, slender, arrow-like stem, with branches that feature the three distinctive leaves. Gay Headers dig the roots in the spring for sassafras tea.

1938

The Aquinnah sassafras has steadily packed on rings of wood, and its stem now measures a good, sturdy two inches in diameter. The great hurricane of 1938 has little impact on the Aquinnah sassafras, as it is but a young sapling among other young trees, all of them limber enough to withstand the winds, and all of them still competing for the same sunlight in the years following the storm. Down the hill, however, according to the historical website of the Wampanaog Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the storm destroys the seasonal fishing village of Lobsterville.

1966

Perhaps 15 or 20 feet high, the Aquinnah sassafras is about to experience a surge in growth. It is now six inches in diameter, and will add another 2 inches over the next 10 years. Sheltered in the lee of a hill, the sassafras grows beside other sassafras trees and black oaks. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall visits the Gay Head Cliffs to celebrate the dedication of the Gay Head Cliffs as a National Natural Landmark.

1987

The Aquinnah sassafras measures 10 inches in diameter inside its bark. The tree is healthy, and has enjoyed a run of fat growth rings that stretch back to the late 1960s. Sunlight has been plentiful, and the roots draw up enough water from its position at the base of the hill and somewhat above the nearby streams. The Aquinnah sassafras is in its prime. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) gains federal recognition in the historic 1987 Settlement Act.

1998

Now 30 feet high, the Aquinnah sassafras grows in a wooded area not far from a sphagnum bog. The name for the town of Gay Head changes to Aquinnah. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank begins a series of land purchases that result in the creation of the Gay Head Moraine conservation area.

2017

The Aquinnah sassafras stands about 40 feet high. Its sheltered location has enabled it to attain a fairly large stature for a sassafras tree. The 17½-inch-diameter tree may be distinguished from its neighbors by its deeply furrowed bark. The public walk in the shade of this tree, admire and smell the distinctive sassafras leaves, and enjoy the trail network on what is now permanently protected conservation land.