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Trees With Flowers Or Fruits - The Laurel Family

( Originally Published 1927 )

As in many other instances, European gardeners have led in the appreciation of this American ornamental tree. However, New England has planted it freely in parks and gardens, and popularity will follow wherever it becomes known. Its natural distribution is from southern Pennsylvania to Florida, and west to Arkansas and Texas. In cultivation it is hardy and flourishes far north of its natural range. No garden that can have a fringe tree should be without it. Fortunately its wood is negligible in quantity, and the temptation to chop down these trees does not come to the ignorant man with an axe. Whoever goes to the woods in May is rewarded for many miles of tramping if he comes upon a "snow-flower tree" in the height of its blooming season, led perhaps by its delicate fragrance when the little tree is overshadowed by the deep green of the forest cover. It is an experience that will not be forgotten soon.

The laurel family, a large group of aromatic trees and shrubs found chiefly in the tropics, includes with our sassafras, laurels, and bays the cinnamon and camphor trees.

California Laurel

Umbellaria Californica, Nutt.

The California laurel climbs the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada from the forests of southwestern Oregon to the San Bernardino range near Los Angeles. "Up North" it is called pepperwood. It is a lover of wet soil, so it keeps near streams. With the broad-leaved maple it gives character to the deciduous growth near the north.. ern boundaries of California, where it reaches eighty to ninety feet in height, and a trunk diameter of four to five feet. Sometimes it is tall, but usually it divides near the ground into several large diverging stems, forming a broad round head. In southern California, and at high elevations, it oftenest occurs as a low shrub.

The willow-like leaves, lustrous and evergreen, last often through the sixth season. Unfolding in winter or early spring, they continue to appear as the branches lengthen until late in the autumn, turning to beautiful yellow or orange and falling one by one. Beginning during the second season, they continue to drop, as new shoots loosen their hold. These leaves are rich in an aromatic oil which causes them to burn readily when piled green upon a campfire. Plum-like purple fruits succeed the small white fragrant flowers, borne in clusters in the axils of the leaves. The seeds germinate before the fruit begins to decay. Indeed the plantlet has attained considerable size before the acid flesh shows any signs of change.

This tree is a superb addition to the parks and gardens of the Pacific Coast. It is strikingly handsome in a land of handsome trees, native and exotic. Its wood is the most beautiful and valuable produced in the forests of Pacific North America for the interior finish of houses and for furniture. It is heavy, hard, strong, fine-grained, light brown, of a rich tone, with paler sap-wood, that includes the annual growth of thirty or forty seasons. The leaves yield by distillation a pungent, aromatic, volatile oil, and the fruit a fatty acid commercially valuable.

The Red Bay

Persea Borbonia, Streng.

Another laurel native to stream and swamp borders, from Virginia to Texas and north to Arkansas, is the red bay, whose bark, thick, red, and furrowed into scaly ridges on the trunk, becomes smooth and green on the branches. The evergreen leaves are narrowly oval, three to four inches long, bright green, polished, with pale linings. The white flowers are very minute bells borne in axillary clusters, succeeded in autumn by blue or black shiny berries, one half inch long, one-seeded, making a pretty contrast with the clear yellow of the year-old leaves and the bright green of the new ones.

This native laurel, lover of rich, moist soil, deserves the place in cultivation more commonly granted its European cousin, Laurus nobilis, Linn., the familiar tub laurel of hotel verandas in the Northern states, and much grown out of doors in southern California and in milder climates east. The tree is occasionally sixty to seventy feet high, with trunk two to three feet in diameter. Such specimens furnish the cabinet-maker and carpenter with a beautiful, bright red, close-grained wood for fine interior finish and furniture. Formerly it was used in the construction of river boats, but the timber supply is now very limited.

The Avocado

P. gratissima, Gaertn.

In Florida and southern California the avocado or alligator pear is being extensively cultivated. This laurel grows wild in the West Indies, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. Its berry attains the size of a large pear. It has been developed in several commercial varieties, all having smooth green or purple skin, and soft oily pulp like mar-row surrounding a single gigantic seed. It is usually cut in two like a melon and eaten raw as a salad dressed with vinegar, salt, and pepper. Once a stranger acquires the taste, he is extremely fond of this new salad fruit. The growing of the trees is easy and very profitable. At present the fruits are in great demand in city markets, and the prices are too high for any but the rich to enjoy this luxury.

Where a market is difficult to reach, the abundant oil is expressed from these fruits and used for illumination and the manufacture of soap. The seeds yield an indelible ink.

It is interesting to the student of trees to note how many tropical families have representation in North America, due to the fact that Florida extends into the tropics, and the West Indies seem to form a sort of bridge over which Central American and South American species have reached the Floridian Keys and the mainland.

The Sassafras

Sassafras, Karst.

The sole remnant of an ancient genus is the aromatic sassafras familiar as a roadside tree that flames in autumn with the star gum and the swamp maples. In the deep woods it reaches a height of more than a hundred feet and is an important lumber tree. In the arctic regions and in the rocky strata of our western mountains, fossil leaves of sassafras are preserved, and the same traces are found in Europe, giving to the geologist proofs that the genus once had a much wider range than now. But no living representative of the genus was known outside of eastern North America, until the report of a recently discovered sassafras in China.

The Indians in Florida named the sassafras to the inquiring colonists who came with Columbus. They explained its curative properties, and its reputation traveled up the Atlantic seaboard. The first cargo of home products shipped by the colonists back to England from Massachusetts contained a large consignment of sassafras roots. To-day we look for an exhibit of sassafras bark in drug-store windows in spring. People buy it and make sassafras tea which they drink "to clear the blood." "In the Southwestern states the dried leaves are much used as an ingredient in soups, for which they are well adapted by the abundance of mucilage they contain. For this purpose the mature green leaves are dried, powdered (the stringy portions being separated), sifted and preserved for use. This preparation mixed with soups gives them a ropy consistence and a peculiar flavor, much relished by those accustomed to it. To such soups are given the names gombo file and gombo zab."

Emerson says that in New England a decoction of sassafras bark gave to the housewife's homespun woolen cloth a permanent orange dye. The name "Ague Tree" originated with the use of sassafras bark tea as a stimulant that warmed and brought out the perspiration freely for victims of the malhelvetica "ague," or "chills and fever."

Sassafras wood is dull orange-yellow, soft, weak, light, brittle, and coarse-grained, but it is amazingly durable in contact with the soil, as the pioneers learned when they used it to make posts and fence rails. It is largely used also in cooperage, and in the building of light boats. Oil of sassafras distilled from the bark of the roots is used for perfuming soaps and flavoring medicines.

With all its practical uses listed above, we must all have learned to know the tree if it grows in our neighborhood, and if we observe it closely, month by month throughout the year, we shall all agree that its beauty justifies its selection for planting in our home grounds, and surpasses all its medicinal and other commercial offerings to the world.

In winter the sassafras tree is most picturesque by reason of the short, stout, twisted branches that spread almost at right angles from the central shaft, and form a narrow, usually flat, often unsymmetrical head. The bark is rough, reddish brown, deeply and irregularly divided into broad scaly plates or ridges. The branches end in slim, pale yellow-green twigs that are set with pointed, bright green buds, giving the tree an appearance of being thoroughly alive while others, bare of leaves, look dead in winter.

What country boy or girl has not lingered on the way home from school to nibble the dainty green buds of the sassafras, or to dig at the roots with his jack-knife for a sliver of aromatic bark?

As spring comes on the bare twigs are covered with a delicate green of the opening leaves, brightened by clusters of yellow flowers (see illustration, page 150) whose starry calyxes are alike on all of the trees; but only on the fertile trees are the flowers succeeded by the blue berries, softening on their scarlet pedicels, if only the birds can wait until they are ripe.

Midsummer is the time to hunt for "mittens" and to note how many different forms of leaves belong on the same sassafras tree. First, there is the simple ovate leaf; second, a larger blade oval in form but with one side ex-tended and lobed to form a thumb, making the whole leaf look like the pattern of a mitten cut out by an unskilled hand; third, a symmetrical, three-lobed leaf, the pattern of a narrow mitten with a large thumb on each side. Not infrequently do all these forms occur on a single twig. Only the mulberry, among our native trees, shows such a variety of leaf forms as the sassafras. There is quite as great variation in the size of the leaves. One law seems to prevail among sassafras trees: more of the oval leaves than the lobed ones are found on mature trees. It is the roadside sapling, with its foliage within easy reach, that delights boys and girls with its wonderful variety of leaf patterns. Here the size of the leaves greatly surpasses that of the foliage on full-grown trees, and the autumnal colors are more glorious in the roadside thickets than in the tree-tops far above them.

Sassafras trees grow readily from seed in any loose, moist soil. A single tree spreads by a multitude of fleshy root-stalks, and these natural root-cuttings bear trans-planting as easily as a poplar. Every garden border should have one specimen at least to add its flame to the conflagration of autumn foliage and the charming contrast of its blue berries on their coral stalks.

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