Sassafras Bushes aren’t all bad
By Bob Sanders
Somebody brought up the subject of pole beans the other day, and we got to talking about the various methods of installing stakes or sticks or strings or whatever for the bean vines to climb upon. And that, naturally, led into the discussion of sassafras poles and bushes.
Now, the sassafras tree is a member of the laurel family, I’m told. It makes a good-sized tree after a while if left alone. It makes a beautiful one, too. You take those sassafras trees around the Crews’ house, or the ones on the back road to Opelika. When the leaves start turning in the fall, even the most dedicated leaf watcher won’t find prettier trees.
But it is the sassafras as a bush that interests us most at the moment. Sassafras bushes have a particular affinity for the kind of old terrace banks we used to have before the people on AG Hill discovered a new style of terraces that you could have rows right on over. And sassafras bushes wouls spring up all around the edges of fields. They’d be amazingly uniform in size, it seems, lined neatly up, alll of approximately the same height, with greenish bark and pale green leaves, all ready to be utilized or destroyed.
They made good sticks, you know, like when Daddy would say, “Hey, go get me a stick to unclog this planter,” or if you needed a good supple stick to speed up old George or knock down a “wast” (local pronunciation) nest or to whittle on with the Tuf Nut knife you got free with the pair of overalls — the sassafras bushes were there, available.
When I was, oh, four or so, I’d play around while Daddy plowed in the sandy little lower corner of the field across the road from Jettie Lee Merchant’s house. There were always plenty of sassafras bushes there. He’d cut me a good one to use as a horse, and I’d straddle it and ride it up and down the rows behind him and over to the house to get him a quart Mason jar or good, cold well water.
Clyde Turner, a hired hand we had for a while, liked sassafras tea. He’d gather up some tender sassafras roots and get Momma to boil them to make the distinctive tea. I didn’t care too much for it, just as I don’t care too much for root beer, which is a citified version of it. But Clyde liked it. Claimed it was a good spring tonic, too. Of course, Clyde also like the eels we used to catch on set hooks in Yellow Creek, so … .
But it was as bean poles that sassafras bushes really fulfilled their mission in life. The early English peas might use up a few poles, but the pole beans required many. When the beans would get to the climbing stage, with the little tendrils curling searchingly around, Momma would allow as how she had to have some bean poles, so, to the sassafras clumps we’d go, and, on the slide or in the wagon, we’d haul back a whole mess of poles, and then stick them at the proper places in the soft ground of the old garden spot out in front of the house, right by the road. And the bean vines would indeed climb up and embrace and cover the poles, and later we’d pick the beans and Momma would cook and can them.
But bean poling wouldn’t get rid of all the sassafras bushes. When everything else Daddy could think of had been done, when all the Johnson grass and Bermuda grass around the edges of the patches had been burned and dug up and sprayed, when the fences had more or less been repaired, when the stovewood and firewood had been cut and hauled and split and stacked, when we were caught up on chopping and plowing, and when it’d look like, just maybe, I might be able to listen one afternoon to Little Orphan Annie and Don Winslow and Captain MIdhight and Terry and the Pirates and Dick Tracy and Jack Armstrong and Red Ryder and all that crowd, Daddy’d say, “Go over yonder and cut all those sassafras bushes in and around that field this afternoon.” You never could win.
But even though they caused me a lot of extra work and could get pretty pestiferous, I still sort of liked sassafras. It wasn’t diabolical like Bermuda grass. When you cut it, it at least stayed cut. And it had a pleasant fragrance, and taste, when you chewed on a twig.. And in the fall, those sassafras leaves made up for everything.