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Mistaken Identity | Sassafras or Osage?

I’d assumed the tree was a sassafras, and that bright orange bark peeling off in papery layers was sassafras root bark. But boy, I made a big mistake. I’ve spent a lot of years learning to identify the plants here, including trees. So how did this mistaken identity happen?

I made assumptions. That is how it happened.

Assumptions Led to the Mistaken Identity

That said, I didn’t have a whole lot of the tree to work with. I found a partial tree washed down in the creek a few years back. What caught my eye was the bright orange roots. The bark was peeling off in thin, papery layers. Floodwaters apparently had uprooted and carried it under the bridge to snag on rocks near the middle of the creek.

Assumptions led to mistaken identity for this tree trunk. It's osage, not sassafras.
Eye-catching orange

Why Did I Assume it was Sassafras?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I even went against my own misgivings, because there was no detectable scent at all of sassafras, even when I scratched. However, the tree had been in the water and sun for almost a full summer before I finally gave in to the urge and went out to gather the bark. So I figured, since it is an aromatic that causes the scent, that it had dissipated after all that exposure to elements. I never suspected I had a case of mistaken identity.

Most people use sassafras root bark as a tonic or ingredient in home made root beer. It’s what gives root beer that classic smell. But I was only interested in the color. It teased me all year long, every time I crossed that bridge. When the water receded and it became beached on the rocks, that’s when I went to get a closer look. And of course I gathered all of the loose bark from it that I could. At this point, I had already assumed it was sassafras, and hadn’t bothered to verify that identification.

‘Barking’ up the Wrong Tree

I’d made a nice yellow from sassafras leaves before, with good lightfastness. The odd thing was that the yellow intensified during the exposure to sunlight. The bark I’d gathered from that tree stump, even if it was a case of mistaken identity, made a gorgeous orange light-fast pigment, and it did the same thing – got much stronger on exposure to sunlight. And so I became more comfortable calling it sassafras root bark. It was the pigment I needed, and that was all I really cared about.

My forager bag of Osage root bark.
Osage root bark in my foraging back

But if ever I want to gather more of that bark, I will never find it if I’m looking at the roots of the wrong tree.

Correcting the Mistaken Identity

This is actually the roots of an Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). Yesterday as I was organizing some photos to accompany an upcoming article for Ozarks Watch magazine, I decided on a whim to search online for what the roots of Osage trees. My gut instinct was right on this time, and there at the top of the search return was an article describing these interesting roots.

And so now I need to comb through this website and my others, correcting that mistaken identity everywhere I’ve posted about that gorgeous orange root bark.


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Author/Artist Info
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Madison Woods is a self-taught artist who moved to the Ozarks from south Louisiana in 2005. In 2018 she began experimenting with watercolor painting, using her local pigments. She calls them Paleo Paints, and her artwork features exclusively the lightfast pigments foraged from Madison county, Arkansas. Her inspiration is nature – the beauty, and the inherent cycle of life and death, destruction and regeneration.

Her online portfolio is at www.MadisonWoods.art.

Click here to join her mailing list.

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