Short, candy-scented and with a name that could be from Dr. Seuss, sassafras trees are, by all accounts, an adorable plant. They’re known for their mitten-shaped leaves that smell like root beer when you crush them up.
But sassafras often goes unnoticed in forests that feature more impressive trees, so we were surprised by the keen eye of one Curious Nashville listener, Stacy Widelitz:
“Are sassafras trees disappearing from the woods around Nashville? I used to see them all the time around Radnor [Lake State Park], but no longer.”
As it turns out, the state of sassafras trees in Tennessee had caught the attention of more than just Widelitz. And though the reasons for the sudden interest may differ, they share a connection.
An Unassuming Shrub
Sassafras trees are relatively unassuming, but they’re more interesting — and useful — than meets the eye. Sassafras isn’t a cash crop, but its leaves are used to make foods like root beer and gumbo and a Native American spice called filé powder. And they hold an ecological importance: Small animals eat the fruit from sassafras and carve out homes in the tree trunk.
So while the trees aren’t economically important, their welfare is still of concern. They’re considered to be a bellwether species — often the first to die out when forest conditions worsen. Forest systems are already precariously balanced, so any changes, like the loss of a species, have the potential to be destructive.
Widelitz wasn’t aware of the ecological value of sassafras when he asked Curious Nashville about it in 2017, but he was still interested in its welfare. For starters, he serves as an elected official, a commissioner of Oak Hill. He feels it’s his duty to keep an eye out for issues that could potentially affect his community.
He also has a personal curiosity: Widelitz lives on the south side of Radnor Lake, so he’s surrounded by nature all the time. He used to make tea from the sassafras leaves in his yard.
And as a songwriter, some of his biggest hits have been about nature — metaphorically, at least. He co-wrote “She’s Like the Wind,” performed by Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, as well as the soundtrack to the ending credits of Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.
(OK, “Between Two Worlds” was probably not one of his biggest hits, but it did happen to be one of this author’s favorite songs as a child. Widelitz was stunned to learn that.)
“I just really enjoyed the fact that there was something growing on my property that I could actually take the leaves and make tea from,” said Widelitz, “And then over the course of years it suddenly occurred to me looking into my backyard, that the sassafras tree was gone.”
So were the sassafras trees disappearing?
The Fungus From Georgia
To find the answer, I contacted Sam Gildiner, forestry health program specialist for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. His answer was ambiguous: He says he’s not really sure if sassafras trees are disappearing. The department hasn’t performed a wide enough survey to be certain.
But they have an interest in sassafras, and a legitimate worry for its health. Early last year, a fungal disease called laurel wilt was first detected in Tennessee. It affects trees within the Lauraceae (laurel) family, which includes species like spicebush, avocado and, yes, sassafras. It was first detected in Georgia in 2002 and has since spread throughout the southeastern United States.
“Laurel wilt is what we call a ‘complex,’ meaning that there is an invasive bug and that bug carries on its back this fungus,” said Gildiner, “That bug burrows into the tree and has that fungus on it, and that fungus gets into the conducting tissue of the tree and blocks it up and stops it from being able do its tree things.”
So far, laurel wilt disease has been detected in six Middle Tennessee counties: Montgomery, Robertson, Cheatham, Dickson, Hamblen and Williamson. Considering where Stacy lives, in southern Davidson County, it’s possible that the sassafras near him were infected, even back in 2017.
But the Department of Agriculture can’t say whether the disease made a significant impact on sassafras population size. Gildiner says it’s common for these trees to go through periods of natural growth and cessation. They’re small and often can’t compete with the larger trees of the woods.
For what it’s worth, Kim Schofinski of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation says the department hasn’t noticed a change at Radnor Lake.
Officials in the state Parks and Agriculture departments aren’t putting too much effort into this issue at this point. It’s just one of many different forestry health problems to keep an eye on. But based on current findings, root beer and gumbo lovers need not worry.