Sassafras and elm trees symbols of independence

“[Sassafras is] a plant of sovereign virtue for the French Pox, and as some of late have learnedly written, good against the Plague and many other Maladies.” 

— journal entry of English Capt. Martin Pring, c. 1602

Captain Pring wrote in his journal as he sailed from England to Maine and the Massachusetts coastline on a specific plant collection mission. His quest was to find and bring back to the mother country a cargo hold full of the roots of Sassafras albidum, a deciduous tree in the Laurel family that is native to eastern North America. The tree, which can reach more than 60 feet tall, has spicy fragrant leaves and thick, fleshy roots.

The “learned writer” of whom Capt. Pring wrote was Spanish physician Nicolas Menardes, who in 1577 wrote a book called “Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde World.” Within its pages, the doctor advised sassafras for “griefes of the Stomache and the Stone, the evil of the Mother and windiness and pestilent and corrupt airs.” The “French Pox” of which Capt. Pring wrote in his journal was syphilis, and the remedy for this common pestilence was a strong tea made from the plant’s roots.

Sassafras was much in demand from Europe, and so it become one of the first North American exports. In fact, during the following two centuries, many native North American plants played an important role in developing an export economy for the new United States, as well as a national identity of Americans.

You probably don’t have a sassafras tree growing in your backyard, but you might have an elm tree, which for centuries has been closely associated with American independence.

America’s Liberty Tree was a large native elm (Ulmus americana) that stood at the corner of Essex and Washington streets near the Boston Commons. On Aug. 14, 1765, the self-proclaimed Sons of Liberty staged the first public act of defiance against the British crown by hanging an effigy of the colonial tax collector from the elm tree’s branches in response to the Stamp Act imposed by King George III. Over the next decade, the Liberty Tree stood as a strong symbol of American freedom from English rule and taxation; so much so, in fact, that Loyalists spitefully cut the elm down during the Siege of Boston (1775-1776) that began the American Revolutionary War.

The American elm tree was decimated by Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection accidentally introduced in the 1920s. However, new cultivars have been developed that are resistant to the disease, such as Cathedral Elm and Prairie Expedition, both of which grow to 50-55 feet tall, and Frontier Elm, a hybrid that reaches to only 25 feet. Chinese, Japanese and Siberian elm species are also more resistant to pests. For our region, lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) cultivars are a popular landscaping choice for residential areas, parks and streets.

I’m not a fan of the round, papery thin seed pods the elm tree in my backyard enthusiastically disperses during the spring. Perhaps I will be a little less annoyed by the pods if I think of them as thousands of tiny reminders that the seeds of American independence were planted beneath an elm tree.

Happy Fourth of July! For more plants associated with American Independence, check my blog at

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at

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