We think leaves change tint but the fall hue is their actual color. A viable leaf is green with chlorophyll, a starch manufactured from water and sunlight. When the little factory stops producing chlorophyll the natural color emerges. Some are yellow, some red or scarlet.
This is your last opportunity to find sassafras and dig roots for tea. In other days sassafras roots were dug and simmered as a spring tonic. The tea is just as hearty now and the smell of sassafras simmering on a wood-burning stove makes for a homey house.
The sassafras tree has four distinct leaf shapes for easy identification. They prefer loose, disturbed soil and are found beside utility poles, along fences and intersections. Unwashed roots are stored hanging in circulating air. They should be rinsed before simmering but washed roots will mold unless frozen.
People don’t bother with hickory and walnuts. They are troublesome but worth the effort. Cracking and picking meat from strong flavored black walnuts is a laborious task after the yellowish green hull is removed. Remove walnut hulls by placing them in a burlap bag and run over them with your car. Crack the nuts with a hammer and place them in the freezer. In a week or so the nut meat will dehydrate and nearly fall out.
A smidgen of black walnut goes a long way in baking and the hulls were used to make brown indelible dye.
Billions of American chestnut trees were killed by a fungus within 30 years but they once dominated southern forests and were prized for nuts and lumber, some rising over 100 feet tall.
Old timers gathered chestnuts to use during the year. The hull has long sharp spines and looks like a porcupine egg.
I know of only one quince tree. The fruit is marginally useful and they are ripening now. A quince is flaxen orange, about the size of a football and inedible except as preserves. The quince’s gift is fleeting: Once you smell up the house cooking quince preserves it never smells so nectarous again.
Sassafras is plentiful near the mountain cabin, “Respite,” which includes ancient chestnut logs. As temperatures drop and leaves glow this weekend, my mornings will start watching the sun slip over Taylor’s Ridge, my hand warmed by a cup of sassafras tea.
Joe Phillips writes his “Dear me” columns for several small newspapers. He has many connections to Walker County, including his grandfather, former superintendent Waymond Morgan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.