by Roger Klinger
The first snow of the season descended upon our beloved mountains, surprising us all. Instead of a dusting, we received close to a foot of beautiful snow and it was the kind of storm that was pure artistry, as every branch and twig was coated with stunning white beauty and grace. There is nothing like a good snowstorm, especially in December, as it awakens the holiday spirit deeply inside me, provides a perfect insulating blanket for the earth, and feeds all the trees, shrubs and gardens with minerals from the sky and moist waters.
The morning after, I bundled up and walked the property with my camera, drinking in the beauty of winter and marveling at the wonderland surrounding. I noticed a sassafras tree seedling by the border of the woods – its top was bright green, giving it away immediately. I also saw the Spicebush trees with their dormant little buds tucked under snow along the branches and also spotted a few black birch trees with their telltale ebony-colored tree trunks glistening with an extra luster in contrast to the snow.
These three trees are common in the mountains and forests of the Blue Ridge and they are relatively easy to identify in the winter. Each of these trees also make a wonderful tea even in the midst of winter with temperatures into the teens and snow on the ground.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are shrubby trees and both are members of the laurel family. Tree identification in winter can be a real challenge, but sassafras is fairly easy to find with its textured bark and telltale bright green tops on the branches and saplings. The root is used for tea, and it can be dug all winter and preserves extremely well, as it is loaded with volatile, aromatic oils that smell like strong root beer. Small sapling roots release themselves fairly easily from the ground, but many times the joke is on us as they are often connected to a hidden, old root ball that will not budge. I wash the dirt off the roots and bring water to a boil. I add the roots and let it boil for a few minutes and then steep until cooled. It makes a delicious tea, and I like it sweetened with either maple syrup or honey. In my cupboard, I also keep a jar of dried, pulverized sassafras leaves, which is traditionally used as part of the “file seasoning” for traditional gumbo. However, it is a nice addition to many soups and stews, giving it a subtle flavor and serves as a thickening agent.
Spicebush is another shrubby tree that rarely exceeds 15-20 feet in height and grows along streambeds and the borders of woodland forests. It is harder to spot in winter to the untrained eye, but if one looks closely at the twigs and branches, you can spot the tiny dormant flower buds studding the branches. And the big giveaway is the aroma from a broken twig, which has a lemony citrus smell that is unique to this lovely tree. Spicebush tea was an old healing tonic in the 1600s, as it “warmed the Spirits” of travelers coming in from the cold. Like sassafras root, I boil the twigs for a few minutes, add milk and honey, and let the tea cool down. The bright-red, aromatically pungent berries of Spicebush are harvested in late summer, dried and used as an alternative to the seasoning allspice. The debarked twigs are used to season roasted meats and game.
The last of the winter tea trees is the common black birch (Betula lenta). Black birch is also native to eastern North America and fairly common, especially at elevations above 3,000 feet. These trees grow much taller than sassafras or spicebush, and there are two giveaways for winter identification: the lustrous ebony-colored bark and the amazingly fresh wintergreen aroma released when you break off a twig. The twigs can be harvested all winter and one simply adds a handful of them to boiling water. Let cool and then enjoy! Black birch twigs are also a great addition to special sauces for meat dishes providing unique flavors. One can use black birch twigs as “chewing sticks” on a winter hike. They are one of the earliest alternatives to our contemporary toothbrushes, and the volatile oils inherent in the tree are especially good for the gums.
The winter solstice is upon us and the light is dwindling in the late afternoons; but one can be reassured that ever so slowly the light always returns and broadens daily in our lives. Winter is a time for quiet reflection and inward journeys and nothing is better than a cup of fresh tea on a cold, icy night.
Contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.