Mystery plant's a tree with football-shaped leaves

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Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and filet gumbo

'cause tonight, I'm gonna meet ma cher amio

- Hank Williams, 1952

This was our mystery plant back in the early spring, and I thought we'd look at it after it's been growing all summer. Back in the early spring there were no leaves to study, only small yellow flowers, which are pretty interesting in their own right. But now it's time for some leaves, as in fall color.

These are some of the most interesting leaves of any woody species in the Southeast. The leaves are simple and alternate. Bright green in the summer, they turn bright red, orange or yellow in the fall. The shape of the leaves is what may be the most interesting aspect of the plant, though. In addition to the "standard" football-shaped leaves, there are some that look like mittens, each blade with a lobe. The mittens may be either right- or left-"handed." And then there are sometimes leaves bearing two lobes, one on each side. Rarely, you will find five-lobed leaves. The plants are extremely variable in terms of which sorts of leaves are displayed: usually, a given plant will bear unlobed and lobed leaves, although some plants feature only the plain, football-shaped ones.

The plants are shrubs or more commonly slender trees, 30 feet tall or so, usually shorter. However, the biggest one in the world, reported to grow in Kentucky, is nearly 100 feet tall. On older trees, the bark is dark and blocky. The plants like to grow on high and dry ground, often where it is sandy, and they are common throughout most of the eastern U.S. Old fields and fence rows are a frequent habitat, where the plants sometimes form thickets.

The individual plants are either male or female, and they bloom before the leaves show up in the spring, as we already know, while it's still chilly. Female plants produce the fruits, which are attractive and dark blue, held on reddish stalks. Each fruit, containing a single seed, is structured much like a tiny avocado, which makes sense, as avocado and our mystery plant are related, belonging to the same botanical family.

All parts of the plant are quite fragrant, especially the wood and bark. Indeed, the bark and roots have been known since the time of Spanish colonization as the source of a delicious tea, and so Europeans learned to enjoy it. The English, for a time, mixed the extract with milk and sugar, and served it hot. It was quite popular and called "sloop." You would think that's where the word "slurp" came from. But it's not. Sloop bars declined, though, with the introduction of coffee as a popular beverage. In America, of course, this plant has been prized as a tea and spring tonic, especially in the Appalachians. And, filet gumbo, which is so highly prized in Cajun cooking, consists of the dried leaves, finely ground.

And now to throw a bit of cold water on it all. The medical community suggests that there may indeed be health concerns arising from consuming extracts of this plant. Sigh. Nothing's fun anymore.

Answer: "Sassafras," Sassafras albidum

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.