Out for a walk in the woods on Sunday with my two youngest granddaughters (nine and ten) and their mother. We were especially thrilled to discover lots of interesting mushrooms and lichens, and some lovely stands of Indian pipes. In a sun-struck sassafras grove I pointed out the curious fact that the sassafras tree has (uniquely?) three shapes of leaves, all on the same tree. I call them "hand," "mitten," and "glove," although I have heard New Englanders call them "lemon," "mitten," and "ghost." Boo! My daughter asked a question no one has asked me before, nor had I ever asked of myself.
Why three shapes of leaves?
I don't know. I can't imagine any selection advantage. Possibly some quirk of gene expression. When I got home I made a quick visit to the net, without success. Maybe bromegrass, our master surfer, can unearth the relevant biology. In any case, the three-shaped leaves endow the woods with one more story to share with grandkids.
Why is the plant called sassafras? That's easier. The name comes from the Latin, saxum fragans, "stone breaker"; the plant was a traditional remedy for kidney stones. Curiously, nearby we found some pipsissewa, a small evergreen plant of the forest floor, with its own string of esses, The name comes from the Native American (Cree) words for "it-breaks-into-small-pieces," another reference to kidney stones.