Pipsissewa and Sassafras

Join editor Jean Denney as she reminisces about the plants she grew up with and the impact they left, rooting her forever to her old home.


Photo by Getty Images Plus/mountainberryphoto

May and June bring flowers, and with each new scent, waves of nostalgia; delicate violets, irises, peonies, lilacs … all favorites of mine.

I grew up roaming the soft hills of the Catoctin Mountains, not far from Harpers Ferry Gap, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge. It’s a gorgeous area, and an ancient subrange of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. While it was boredom that sent me into the woods around these mountains, it was curiosity that kept me there. Spring meant that there were discoveries to be made, and two discoveries were so sensorial that each remains permanently etched in my olfactory glands: pipsissewa and sassafras.

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), a cousin to spotted and striped wintergreen, grows close to the ground and sends up one or two tiny flower clusters that smell amazingly good: bright, but not too floral, with a mild menthe-like crispness (not unlike Beeman’s gum, if you’re old enough to remember the vintage candy). Pipsissewa flowers don’t keep, so I stopped trying to bring them home. They don’t transplant either. Instead, I learned to seek them out, belly and nose to the ground, from June to August.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), on the other hand, was prolific; once the leaves came out, it was easy to spot saplings large enough to have a root worth digging up — and small enough to actually get out of the ground. I’d chew on small roots as I hiked, and I’d save larger roots to make tawny-pink tea that needed no additional sweetener. It was magical.

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