Lauraceae: Sassafras, Guacamole, Cinnamon and other tough spells

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Sassafras albidum leaves are variable.  This 3-lobed shape is most recognizable.

Laura who?  Lauraceae is a plant family.  Just in case you’re a little hazy on what that means… Most of us are familiar with the hierarchy we had to memorize in High School Biology class: Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species.  Some of the categories can be further subdivided, such as the ‘Family’ level, which can be divided into ‘Subfamilies,’ and some of these are even subdivided into ‘Tribes.’ The Latin names we use for plants on this site and our plant tags are just the Genus and Species, but the actual full scientific name would have at least seven words! When I type “Liatris spicata” (Blazing Star) that is actually shorthand for “Plantae Angiospermophyta Dicotyledoneae Asterales Asteraceae Liatris spicata.”  So, when I say something is a plant family, I’m referring to that third step up the taxonomy ladder that ends with the suffix “-aceae.”  Some plant families you might be familiar with are Asteraceae (Sunflowers, Coneflowers), Lamiaceae (Mints), Rosaceae (Roses, Apple Trees, Strawberries), Solanaceae (Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Tobacco) and Violaceae (Violets).  The members of a plant family all share some common characteristics that were most likely inherited from a common ancestor.  Recent advances in DNA analysis have lead to some minor and major regroupings in plant families, with many new genera and species created as the picture of how plants evolved has become clearer. IMG_3083a

Spicebush (Lindera bezoin) flowers bloom in late winter/early spring before the leaves sprout. 

Lauraceae is a medium sized plant family with most of the members adapted to life in cloud forests near the equator.  South and Central America and Southeast Asia have the steep mountainous terrain and proximity to the Equatorial Pacific Ocean to produce cloudforests, and the majority of the species in the Lauraceae family reside there.  Nearly all of the members are trees or woody shrubs that contain essential oils.  Cinnnamon, Bay, Camphor, Avocado, Sassafras, and Spicebush are all in this family, and all have very distinct odors from the compounds in the oils they produce. The majority of this family also produce fleshy fruits with a single, relatively large, seed or pit in the center.  These fruits are attached to the branches by a bowl-shaped “cap” much like an acorn on an oak.IMG_4132a

Sassafras bark resembles that of a pine tree at first glance.

The last two on the above list, Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and Spicebush (Lindera spp.) are Georgia natives and pretty unique for this family because they are deciduous.  Sassafras roots have long been used in tinctures as a treatment for all manner of ailments, and as a flavoring for root beer.  Spicebush leaves and twigs are used to make tea, and as a result of repotting many dozens of them I can tell you that their roots have a very pleasant aroma. Both Sassafras and Spicebush are dioecious, meaning that there are male and female plants, and both are required for the female plants to produce berries.  These berries are important food sources for birds, especially migratory ones.  The berries have a high fat content (think Avocados) and are great long-lasting fuel if you are flying to the other side of the planet.

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Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Spicebush leaf.  Sassafras is also a host plant for these caterpillars.

One more fun fact about plant families: They often host specific families of butterfly and moth caterpillars.  These organisms have co-evolved in the arms race between plants and their insect predators.  Specific caterpillars adapt new ways of breaking down and deriving nutrients from the very oils and volatile compounds that the plants began producing as a means to repel hungry leaf-eaters. Many caterpillars actually incorporate the compounds into their flesh, also as a means of deterring predators!  Monarch caterpillars digest chemicals (cardiac glycosides) produced by milkweed that would stop the heart of most other animals.  Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars consume leaves that would probably have a turpentine-like taste to you and me.  These relationships began many, many thousands of years ago, and continue to evolve to this day.

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Sassafras tree turning brilliant colors between a dogwood and an oak.

You are now familiar with most of the local members of an entire plant family! Learning plant families is a great way to get a sense of the bigger picture of plant taxonomy.  I first read about it in the book “Botany in a Day” by Thomas J. Elphel, and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to learn more about plants.  I still learn things every time I open it up, and I’ve had my copy for about 5 years.  CLICK HERE to go to Elphel’s website where you’ll find lots of web resources and the links to buy his book if you wish.

Sassafras trees are turning beautiful colors right now, so keep an eye out for those distinctive leaves.  I just “discovered” several trees around my neighborhood that I had never noticed before. Are there any on your street?sassafrasfall


Fall in the Holler

I love this time of year.  The weather is changing, the tree canopy is turning brilliant colors, everything is slowly winding down for a long Winter’s nap.  After a long day of scrambling to get the nursery freeze-proofed on Tuesday, I took a slightly shorter day Wednesday to walk in the woods at sunset.  It was gorgeous.  The Beech grove is one of the most peaceful, colorful and relaxing places to spend a sunset.  I resisted the urge to ‘shop these photos, but most were perfect as is anyway.   Feast your eyes:IMG_4138a IMG_4143a IMG_4142a IMG_4140a

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 Winter has fired a warning shot.  Enjoy the colorful last days of autumn in the coming weeks.


Bursting with Berries

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A member of the mint family, Beauty Berries add a note of unusual and lovely color to our landscape.

Our southeastern habitats offer some amazing and strange fruits. We have berries of all colors in the fall, from the florescent mauve of the American Beauty Berry (on the right) to the alien-looking hot-magenta and burnt orange Heart’s-a-Busting (below left.)  After a muggy summer filled with a hospitable Southern-Style helping of insects and various fruits and seeds, the larder is far from bare for our winged friends if you were to plant one or two or more of these wonderful shrubs in the understory of your yard.  Have you heard the deafening chatter outside in the trees and in our parks over the past few weeks?  You may have a migratory flock passing through your neighborhood.  Question is, are there any groceries for them to nibble on?

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A plate full of Heart’s-a-Busting waiting to be cleaned for seeds.

 

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A deciduous holly species, Ilex decidua.

 

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A bowl full of Red Chokeberries, awaiting fermenting, cleaning and sowing.

North American warbler species and other migratory birds heading south as well as the resident populations that overwinter in the Georgia Piedmont rely on the late berries from our subcanopy shrubs.  The berries of some shrubs, like the Heart’s-a-Busting, the Sparkleberry, and our deciduous Hollies, are voraciously consumed on the way down to the winter’s tropical hangouts.  Berries that are not consumed immediately, but hang around throughout the winter are called winter persistent.  These berries seem to need a bit of aging in the cold weather (or hunger) to be palatable.  Beauty Berry seems to fall into this category.  Other berries, such as the scarlet Red Chokeberry,  seem to be ignored until the trip back north in the spring.  The gorgeous Red Chokeberries in my side yard delight me all winter long until the Cedar Waxwings come through in the spring.  Then the berries disappear in an hour’s time.