Notes from Greenwood

Rootbeer, Sassafras Tea, File’ Gumbo, Turkey Calls
March 31, 2010

With our yard manager recently on sick leave this fall, mowing the extensive yard at Greenwood became JW’s job. During a recent mow, I noticed that a Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum, at the yard edge was replete with fruit. As I mowed I reminisced about grade school and putting a bit of aromatic Sassafras root in my pocket to sniff the fragrance. Having the fragrant Sassafras root as a magnet to attract classmates was a status enhancer. It was a secret ingredient that reminded “sniffers” of a cool root beer – it was a long ago time of more innocent “sniffing”.

My reminiscing reignited my curiosity regarding the history of Sassafras in American culture and gaining a more in depth knowledge of the ecology. My investigations yielded some interesting information that I thought I would share with you.

Sassafras albidumis native to the eastern and southern United States and into Mexico. It ranges as far west as Texas and Iowa. The trees are typically 35 to 50 feet in height at maturity. According to the National Registry of Big Trees, the champion tree is in Owensboro, KY. In 1982, it was 76 feet high its spread was 69 feet and the trunk circumference was 253 inches (over 11 feet) at 4-1/2 feet from the ground. Sassafras is one of the easier trees to identify by its leaves. Sassafras leaves can have a mitten shape, with either a left thumb or a right thumb, or it can be three-lobed. Usually, you’ll see all three shapes on the same tree. The Sassafras tree is a member of the laurel family so it has aromatic foliage. Rub a leaf between your fingers, and its scent is obvious. You can also experience the unique aroma of sassafras by crushing a little twig, but to experience the full aroma, crush a root.
Sassafrasis dioecious, meaning that the male (staminate flowers) and female (pistillate flowers) are borne on different plants.
The showy greenish-yellow flowers appear in March and April as the leaves begin to unfold. They develop in loose, drooping few-flowered axillary racemes. You can often see Sassafrasblooming along fence rows where the soils are sandy and acid.
The fruit, 8 to 13 mm (0.3 to 0.5 in) long, is a single-seeded dark-blue drupe. It matures in August and September of the first year. The fruit is borne on a thickened red pedicel, and the pulpy flesh covers the seed. The local Sassafras will be blooming soon.
Seed production begins when trees approach 10 years of age and is greatest when trees are 25 to 50 years old. Good seed crops are produced every 1 or 2 years. Birds are principal agents of seed dissemination, with water a secondary agent. Small mammals probably distribute some seeds. The fall maturing seed usually remains dormant until the following spring, although some early maturing seed may germinate in the fall. The limit for storage of Sassafrasseed in the forest floor is about 6 years. Stratification for 120 days in moist sand at 41° F breaks natural dormancy. The best seedbed is a moist, rich, loamy soil with a protective cover of leaves and litter. Germination is hypogeous (the cotyledons remain below ground).

Sassafras is intolerant of shade and reproduction is sparse and erratic in wooded areas. Sassafras reproduces easily by root sprouts. The dense thickets often found in woods openings or in old fields develop from root sprouts rather than seed. On good sites where competition is not intense, the sprouts may grow to 12 ft in 3 years.

Root beer was a concoction of our early colonists. The aromatic Sassafras roots were boiled with molasses, and then allowed to ferment producing an alcoholic drink – the original “root beer”. Alcoholic root beer was an important export product in colonial times. Modern-day, commercially produced root beer is a soft drink that contains no alcohol and a synthetic sassafras flavor.

Every Cajun cook uses file’, powdered Sassafras leaves, to thicken gumbo and soups after they are cooked. Although the name file’ is French, the addition of powdered Sassafras leaves to soups and stews is attributed to Native Americans. Oil of Sassafras is used as a flavoring, or in perfumes and scented soaps. A yellow dye is also extracted from the trees. The essential oil in Sassafrasbark contains traces of safrole, a toxic chemical considered a carcinogen. Herbalists use Sassafras for a variety of medicinal treatments. It is considered to have value as a stimulant, pain reliever, astringent and treatment for rheumatism. Skin eruptions may be bathed in an infusion from the leaves. Sassafrastonic has been used as a treatment for syphilis since the early 1600’s. It is reported that chewing on the bark may help break the tobacco habit; however, ingestion of sassafras may cause vomiting and can be toxic if taken in large doses. Medicinal use of sassafras has declined in recent years because of safrole.

Finally, the wood is very durable and is used to make buckets, barrels, poles, posts, and turkey calls. Fall leaf color can be quite impressive. The pictures are of the Sassafras tree at Greenwood.

The Sassafras trees are blooming at present. Look along the fence rows for the blooming trees, especially where the soil tends to be sandy.

Sassafras, sometimes called white sassafras, is well known for its aromatic properties. The leaves and bark both have a slightly citrus scent, while the roots have a strong root-beer odor. It is from these roots that root beer was historically produced by early colonists. The roots were boiled with molasses, and then allowed to ferment, until a distinctive soft drink was produced. Sassafras tea is another popular drink that is steeped from the bark of the tree and served as a “soothing drink”, or a “spring tonic”. In England, the tea is mixed with milk and sugar to make saloop, a popular morning beverage.

Herbalists use sassafras for a variety of medicinal uses. It is said to have value as a stimulant, pain reliever, astringent and treatment for rheumatism. Skin eruptions may be bathed in an infusion from the leaves. Sassafras tonic has been used as a treatment for syphilis since the early 1600’s. It is reported that chewing on the bark may help break the tobacco habit, however, ingestion of sassafras may cause vomiting and can be toxic if taken in large doses. Medicinal use of sassafras has declined in recent years because of the possibility that it may contain carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).

In addition to medicinal uses, sassafras wood, bark and roots produce an extract (oil of sassafras) that is useful in flavorings, or in perfumes and scented soaps. A yellow dye is also extracted from the trees. The crushed leaves were used by colonists to thicken soups and stews.

Sassafraswood is very durable and is used to make buckets, barrels, poles, posts, and crossties. It is also used in interior cabinetry.

White-tailed deer are known to browse on the twigs and leaves of sassafras trees, which are sometimes grown to restore depleted soils. The trees regenerate quickly after a disturbance and are early pioneers in old fields.

Sassafras is found throughout the eastern and southern United States and into Mexico. It ranges as far west as Texas and Iowa

Sassafras tea was widely used in the past for its various medicinal effects. Sassafras root and bark was an important export in colonial times. However, natural sassafras tea has been banned from commercial sale in the US since the 1970s, because of concern that safrole, a compound in natural sassafras products, may cause cancer.

In earlier times, homemade root beer was made by fermenting molasses (sometimes mixed with honey) and sassafras root. Commercial root beer used oil of sassafras and safrole for flavoring. Artificial flavoring or safrole-free sassafras extract is now used commercially, and is available for sassafras candy and other sassafras recipes.

Sassafras trees are native to most of the eastern United States. The trees are typically 35 to 50 feet in height at maturity. Individual sassafras trees in the South, may be taller than this average. The spread is usually about 2/3 the height.

Sassafras albidum suckers from its roots, so the tree is often seen in colonies. In our neighbor’s pasture, it grows in a colony along the fence row on a hillside, with black locust trees which also sucker from their roots. It’s interesting that an article about sassafras trees in the Appalachians mentions them growing with locust trees there, also.

The traditional use of sassafras tea in herbal medicine is to help the immune system recover from a bout with poison oak or sumac, especially when the leaf has been chewed and peri-anal inflammation has resulted. Sassafras tea is also used to induce sweating to break a fever, and in douches to relieve inflammation caused by urinary tract infection in women. The essential oil is applied to the scalp to treat lice. The tea of Sassafras should only be administered by someone qualified in the use of this material, and the novice should abstain from experimenting with Sassafras as an internal medicine.

The essential oil in sassafras bark contains traces of safrole, a toxic chemical, and its use as an oil is greatly cautioned. Sassafras bark is not to be used while pregnant. When used as a tea it is should only be administered by someone familiar with the appropriate use of this substance and only for brief periods of time. The FDA strictly prohibits the use of Sassafras bark and oil in food products. Its internal use is not recommended.



Small Bits of Color
February 2010

In spite of the freezing temperatures in January and February, four small plants have begun to bravely open their flower buds. These include the henbit, small bluet, spring beauty, and field pansy. Of course, the mass of blooms is not yet eye catching, as these few blooming plants are at the cusp of the blooming range; nevertheless, all four are not hard to spot in lawns, fields, and pastures.

The henbit or dead nettle, Lamium amplexicaule, is most obvious. We have two species here, but the second, L. purpureumor red henbit is not yet in bloom. The delicate purple to pale lavender lipped flowers are in whorled clusters around the square stem (Mint Family, Lamiaceae) and are beautiful seen through a hand lens. In many areas, henbit is in large colonies in lawns, gardens, low open ground, and field edges, everywhere! The plant is native to Europe, and most people call it a weed. However, it is important, as a nectar source for bees and other insects, as other nectar sources are not in bloom this time of year, and the flower will be available as soon as nectar-feeding insects start to emerge. I was disturbed to hear henbit mentioned on a garden call in show asking how to eliminate this unsightly weed in a suburban yard. The expert told how to herbicide henbit. Henbit is harmless and can be easily mowed later in spring; in the mean time, henbit has its niche in the ecosystem.

Claytonia virginicaor spring beauty (Purslane Family, Portulacaceae), can form spectacular white showy patches in fields and meadows in the spring. Currently, individual flowers are open and scattered about. On cold or cloudy days and at night, the flowers are closed. The individual flower petals are white with pink to dark rose veins. Interestingly, the corms (short, underground stem enveloped in thin paper like leaves) are edible and are said to have a radish flavor when raw and the taste of a potato when boiled. Since they are apparent in early winter, some Native Americans used them as a food source when other food sources were scarce.

Houstonia micrantha(Madder Family, Rubiaceae) or small bluets (other common names include: star-violet, innocence, fairy flax, angel-eyes and Quaker ladies) have the tiniest flowers. Small bluets and spring beauties form large showy patches of blue and white to pink color from January to April in yards and fields. The tiny petals of small bluets range from blue-violet, lilac, pale blue to white. It is interesting to note that other plants in this family include gardenia, coffee, and quinine (used to treat malaria)

Viola bicolor prev. V. rafinesquii(Violet Family, Violaceae) or field pansy, cupid’s-delight, heartsease, or Johnny-Jump-Up, has a happy floral face! The petals can be dark violet, pale lavender or white with dark stripe markings. Field pansies can be seen in some years as extensive colonies with the above-mentioned plants. The crushed roots have a wintergreen fragrance. The flowers can be candied, and are great as pressed flowers.

If your yard has native plants, these tiny, early bloomers are probably hidden in the brown grass. Even if you have domesticated hybrid grasses, look close, as these early bloomers have probably survived the domesticated monoculture since we seldom mow in winter.

Could the English poet P. B. Shelly have been looking at some early bloomers in winter when he wrote the famous last line in his poem Ode to the West Wind – “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Lastly, the birds are en mass coming to our wall for both the morning and afternoon feedings of sunflower and small seeds. These include five species of sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, black birds, two species of woodpeckers, two species of doves, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, Carolina chickadees, one eastern towhee, and an unusual visitor at home under the shrubs, a green-tailed towhee. No doubt its GPS is not working correctly. The squirrels have demolished the hanging feeders, so we have now put these up for the year and scatter seeds under the bushes and on the wall.
Stay Warm,
Bobby & JW

The Owls at Greenwood
July 2009


We all readily recognize this most characteristic call of the Barred Owl. Have you heard its’ spine tingling scream and its’ ah ah ah ah?? It is the most vocal of our owls. Barred owls call mostly at night, but daytime calling is not unusual. Barred owls can be heard most nights at Greenwood with pairs alternately calling. Listen to the different owl calls on your birdcall CD. Calls are quite specific and species identification can be made using the calls-just like frogs and toads.

Of the 19 species of owls in North America, Greenwood is home to four; the Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, Eastern Screech Owl, Otis asio, Barred Owl, Strix varia, and Barn Owl, Tyto alba. In winter, the Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus has been spotted. These owls have similar life histories and biologies with individual species varying in their habits.

In general, the five species of owls known to frequent the haunts of Greenwood are nocturnal, hunting at night and perching silently during the day. The rarely seen Short-eared owl is an exception, hunting mainly at dawn and dusk. Owls are highly adapted nocturnal predators with forward facing eyes, binocular vision, acute hearing and silent flight. Owl prey on small rodents, birds, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. Owls swallow small prey whole, such as mice and small birds and subsequently cough up a pellet of undigested fur, bones and feathers. Close examination of the expelled pellets is often used to determine the specific prey items the owl is eating. Large owls like the fierce Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl will eat larger prey such as rabbits, skunks, weasels, crows’ other owls and hawks at roost. The Great Horned owl is the most fearsome hunter often attacking large prey as large as Great Blue Herons, domestic cats, Ospreys and even Barred Owls.

Owls are lazy nest builders and prefer to use previously constructed or naturally available sites. Barn Owls nest in barn lofts and large tree hollows. The small Screech Owls also are habitual cavity nesters using tree cavities, old birdhouses and old woodpecker holes for nests. Neither of these owls adds any material to their nests, laying their eggs on the bare floor. Both species, and the Barred Owl, will use properly constructed and placed nest boxes. Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls also nest in large tree cavities, but will readily utilize both active and abandoned hawk nests. Great Horned Owls often use nests constructed by Red-tailed Hawks since both live in the same habitat. Perhaps that is why Red-tailed hawks construct two nests. The Short-eared Owl returns to the far north to nest on the ground.

Bobby and I often find the small, yellow-eyed Screech Owls living in the wood duck nest boxes when we service them in early January. When the nest box door is opened the small owls hide in the corner pressing their faces into the darkest corner-if I cannot see you, you cannot see me. We gently remove them with a leather-gloved hand and expel the numerous small rodent pellets and songbird feathers that have collected in the nest box. Often we find large rodents dead in the nest boxes and we surmise that the rodents were caught by the owl but were too big for it to swallow. Both color phases, reddish and gray, are present. It appears that they do not utilize the wood duck nest boxes for nesting, but rather for wintering. Screech Owls have an unusual call-a long trill. It is easily recognized by its soft call. We often hear them calling in the winter when the males are establishing territory.

The Barn Owl density has decreased nationwide with the decrease in large tree cavities and abandoned buildings. These owls are easily recognized by their long legs and large, white, heart-shaped facial disk. This owl is often found in more open habitats rather than wooded areas. It has acutely developed hearing and locates its prey, usually small rodents, almost entirely by sound. It can pinpoint a mouse’s footsteps 30 yards away. It makes a hissing shriek-like call when flying low over open fields at night. It will make the hair rise on your neck when the owl is close and the call is not expected!! A pair of Barn Owls is often seen roosting in an old loft-less barn at Greenwood. Apparently, they nest in an old tree cavity near the barn on Collier Creek.

Barred Owls are common in the wooded habitats at Greenwood. They are often associated with river bottoms. We hear their hooting, screaming and calling all year around. A specimen often awakens me at night practicing its raucous audio in an oak just outside the bedroom window. Barred Owls will often answer your imitation of its call. This owl appears to revel in unrestrained gratification of its hooting. It is a large owl, 21 inches tall, no ear tufts and dark eyes. Male Barred Owls often visit urban areas in search for food.

Great Horned Owls are common in the sparsely wooded pecan groves at Greenwood. Their call is a repeated deep, soothing “hoot”, which does not convey its fierceness as a hunter. It is big, approximately 22 inches tall with large widely spaced ear tufts, yellow eyes and a white throat. The Great Horned Owl is the meanest “sob” around. Its prey includes large roosting birds, crows, hawks, ducks, herons and other owls. It is the only predator I am aware of that routinely preys on skunks. At Greenwood the crows and hawks roost in the heavy cover of the eastern red cedar breaks to protect against this owl. Duck decoys left overnight on the sloughs at Greenwood often acquire talon punctures during the night or just disappear. A night watchman is needed for derelict duck decoys!

The Short-eared Owl is a rare visitor to Greenwood. It prefers grassy, swampy areas for hunting. The one I saw was flying low like a Northern Harrier over an old-field at dusk one winter. The next day I flushed him from the grass in the same area. They return to the far north to nest on the ground.

I have often been asked why owls have the curious habit of bobbing their heads up and down and from side-to-side when they look at you. After many, “I just do not knows”, I finally read enough to find the answer. Forward facing eyes and binocular vision allows the owl to pinpoint focus, but they cannot rotate their eyes in their sockets like we can. So, they bob and weave their heads to provide a stereoscopic view and improve the birds’ ability to estimate distances. Check it out for yourself.

The posting of the Barred Owl photo bathing in the birdbath on the RRTMN blog by Janet Phillips prompted us to finish this article that was started this spring. Thanks Janet, a good prompt was needed. If you find owls interesting read about them, Google them and listen to their calls. As a passing note, on a business/birding-on-the-side trip to South Africa, Dr. Wiedenmann and I saw a Pel’s Fishing Owl sitting in a tree as we drove into our night camp in the Kruger Park. Aptly named the Pel’s fishing Owl is a fisherman! This was quite a treat and highlight of a long journey!
J.W. & Bobby


Another unusual find has been 5 newly hatched red-eared sliders, Trachemys scripta elegans. An identifying character is the reddish stripe behind the eye. We have seen these babies over a three-week period around the yard. Adult red-eared sliders were spotted last fall in the yard looking for suitable places to lay their eggs that are laid in damp but not wet soil, and eggs incubate for about 3 months. The eggs successfully hatched this spring.

The red-eared sliders are mature to breed in about 5-7 years. The mating dance involves the male caressing the female’s face with his front claws and perhaps swimming circles around her. The pregnant female will bask in the sun to warm themselves and the eggs inside her. After about 2 months, the eggs are ready to be laid. The sex of the turtle can be determined at maturity as the males’ front claws are longer and their tails thicker and longer. The reddish stripe behind the eye is less apparent in the male. These turtles have poor eyesight, but are very sensitive to vibrations, which cause them to slide quickly off their sunning logs. Aptly named, red-eared sliders!!


Relocating the “Chicken Snake”
April 2009

Yes, we have resurfaced. Spring has been busy and spring is here. At Greenwood we officially declare spring’s arrival with the return of the Blue Grosbeaks. They are one of the earliest Neotropical songbird migrants we see each spring.

For the past two months, Dr. James Yantis, retired TPWD Biologist and Houston Toad expert from Hearne Texas, has headquartered at Greenwood to search nightly for specimens of Dwarf American Toad, Bufo americanus charlesmithi. If you hear them calling at night, please let me know, as we have unable to find the little amphibians.

Now for the “Chicken Snake” Relocation story. Bobby had been telling me that she and the grand-kids had seen a large snake’s tail protruding through the opening to a wood duck nest box in the wetlands just below the house. I could not convince her to open the observation door and peek inside!!! I was aware that mounting the nest box over water was no deterrent to predators, including the notorious wood duck egg predator, the Texas Rat Snake, Elaphe obsoleta lindheimerii. I was not convinced that a rat snake had invaded the nest box because I had covered the supporting t-post with electrical conduit pipe to keep predators out. Someone told me that the electrical conduit was too “slick” for snakes and raccoons to climb.

On Thursday as I was passing by the nest box and thought I saw the tip of a snake’s tail protruding through the round nest box entry hole. But, when I got closer the tail was gone. I did not have on my rubber boots to allow a dry look through the observation door so I moved on. Well, yesterday morning, Jim Yantis, Bobby and I were down on the wetland looking at plants, listening to frogs call, and discussing the global demise of frogs and toads to the chytrid fungus (see an article in recent National Geographic issue). I had on my rubber boots and as we approached the wood duck nest box I was nominated by Bobby to check the nest box for a possible snake.

To my surprise when I removed the observation door, a large reptilian was resident. I carefully removed a fine Texas rat snake specimen. Apparently, the electrical conduit was not a sufficient barrier.

The Texas Rat Snake, alias “Chicken Snake” to all rural residents with chickens, is an excellent predator of bird eggs, mice/rats, and small birds. They are excellent climbers and can ascend a vertical wall or tree trunk. They are also strong constrictors, using their strong coils to subdue and dispatch mice, rats and small birds. The juveniles consume lizards and frogs, especially tree frogs-cuidado mascot!!! There are five recognized subspecies of rat snakes, Texas, black, yellow, gray and everglades. Subspecies classification is based on color pattern and distribution. We have both Texas and black rat snakes in NE Texas. Last fall, we saw and I carefully subdued a very large black rat snake that measured an estimated 96+ inches-approximately two feet longer than the upper length given by the reptile field guide. It was a marvelous black rat snake specimen. Bobby just watched, no participation.

A juvenile Texas rat snake differs in appearance from the adult. Many juvenile snakes exhibit patterns and colors that are different from their appearance when they become adults. Bobby was extremely brave and took this photo of a juvenile Texas rat snake on the front porch several weeks ago while I was gone.

The rat snake residing in the nest box was darker than usual and had opaque eyes. A darker than normal color pattern, and especially the opaque eyes are characteristic of an approaching molt. The snake is blind when the eyes become opaque just prior to molting and is vulnerable to predation. It probably initially went into the wood duck nest box looking for a meal and remained to molt in this protected area.

No down was present in the wood duck nest box, thus we assume the rat snake went hungry. We relocated the Texas rat snake to a safe place for molting a couple of miles away. If you have unwanted snakes, either relocate them yourself or have someone do it for you. Bobby gets her husband to relocate unwanted snakes at Greenwood. She has a very accommodating spouse!!!
JW & Bobby

What’s at Your Bird Feeder?
December 2008

After sitting near the window with Bobby and three grandsons and watching the birds feeding on the seed we provided. The plethora of birds energized us and we decided not to wait until 2009 to begin our correspondence.

First, a seasonal event to note was the Vernal Equinox which occurred December 21. Sometime during the 21-22 December date, the earth’s tilt positioned the sun at its southernmost position, over the Tropic of Capricorn. Winter has arrived and the amount of daylight will begin to lengthen with each passing day. To quote a famous poet; “can Spring be far behind?”

OK, now for a short rendition to begin. Many of the birds that move south into our area to winter have arrived. Cold, damp, overcast days seem to increase the bird activity around our house. Most of the birds we see are coming to the seed we scatter on the rock wall, patio and place in feeders. However, groups of birds often attract non-seed eating birds. Perhaps they are curious and are investigating the commotion. The ubiquitous northern mocking bird is active without investigating the “flock” at the feeders. Today our regular visitors included the northern cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, Inca doves, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, white-crowned sparrows, white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, a red-bellied woodpecker, American goldfinches, and two purple finches. Out in Bobby’s flower garden, a fox sparrow was scratching. Under the oaks, northern flickers were feeding (northern flicker is the only woodpecker in our area that commonly feeds on the ground). A Carolina wren was singing in the big sweet gum while a big pileated woodpecker was working on a dead limb. A rare, but colorful, visitor was the elusive and secretive male eastern towhee.

Our regular acrobats at the hanging feeders are the fox and grey squirrels.

Get out your bird ID guide and look around your yard. You will be amazed at the different birds you will see. Remember that many of the male birds are not in their colorful mating plumage.

An easy to identify somewhat rare visitor at your feeder is Harris’s sparrow. Also, look for the more difficult to identify chipping sparrow and pine siskin. Woodpeckers that may be visiting trees (or utility poles) in your yard are red-headed, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy and hairy. Look around each day, and note who is visiting.
For now – Bobby & JW

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