During the last week of June, I discovered a single clump of an unfamiliar shrub. After identifying it using a few reliable plant guides, I was confident that I'd located New Jersey Redroot (Ceanothus americanus), also called New Jersey Tea. As the latter name suggests, the leaves of this shrub can be used to make a caffeine-free tea substitute -- a use reportedly popular during the Revolutionary War.
I often recognize plants by look alone, but sometimes my nose can help nail down an identity. Such is the case with Small Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis).
Distinctive bluish waxy fruit -- which ripens in the fall, but can remain on the shrub into the following spring -- can often be found along the twigs of this shrub, below the most recent year's green growth. In early summer, the tiny fruit is green and forming, but it is still a solid field mark.
The resinous leaves provide another clue. Rubbing them gently with my fingers releases their pleasant aroma. Last week, I dried some Small Bayberry leaves to use as a food seasoning, similar to the culinary bay leaf.
This shrub grows in many Plainville locations, often thriving in poor soil conditions. I often find it along roads, power-line cuts, and in old fields. Small Bayberry also grows in many coastal locations, and is frequently used in landscaping.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidium) is an easily identified tree. If you find a tree with three types of leaves -- entire or with two or three lobes -- and a pleasant fragrance when you scratch the stem, you've likely found Sassafras.
Sassafras is found throughout much of the eastern US, but is less common north of Massachusetts. It grows abundantly in Plainville, where I typically find families of young trees along sunny forest edges.
Dried, crushed, and added to soups, Sassafras leaves provide both a unique flavor and a thickening quality. I've not used them in large enough quantities to notice the thickening action, but I do enjoy the flavor. Commercially, dried Sassafras leaves are sold as filé powder and are a traditional thickener of many Louisiana gumbos.
Once you've found this tree, give a young twig a scratch. Smell it once and you'll never forget it.
Sassafras flowers early in the green season. I found these female flowers in late April.
Whether you eat the leaves or not, do take an opportunity to acquaint yourself with this spicy tree. And if you missed the first post in this series, check out Foraging Fragrant Leaves: Sweet-fern.
In the past few days, I've collected and dried the fragrant leaves of several different plants. I'll start by introducing a shrub that I've known since my youth and which still grows along the woods edge behind my childhood home in Maine. Long before I knew its name or uses, I recognized this plant by its scent. Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) is tolerant of poor soil conditions and is often found growing in dry, sunny locations.
Sweet-fern's leaves are unique both in appearance and aroma. While this shrub's leaves are fern-like, its woody branches easily distinguish it from herbaceous ferns.
When gathering sweet-fern, rather than stripping a pile of leaves off of one shrub, I spread out my impact by picking a few leaves from each shrub as I move through a colony. After a few hours in my electric dehydrator at 105 degrees, the leaves were crisp and ready for a jar. The leaves (fresh or dried) can be brewed into tea.
This time of year, immature nuts can also be gathered. They develop in spiked burrs along the branches, and, once removed, resemble small pine nuts.
I didn't get much flavor from the few I ate, but had fun sampling them nonetheless. If you don't yet know this plant, I hope you smell it soon.