Feeling the Roots

Lessons learned from transplanting the lone Sassafras tree in our yard

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Last July, I found an interesting little plant growing right up against the base of a big Loblolly Pine tree, right near the western edge of the property. The strongly-veined, occasionally three-lobed leaves were something I hadn't seen before, and I was thrilled to learn that I'd found the first Sassafras tree on these seven and a half acres.

Young Sassafras tree growing at the base of a Loblolly Pine The little Sassafras as I first found it

I taped off my new little friend to protect it from the weed eater while I figured out what to do next; I felt pretty sure that it needed to be moved somewhere else. It wouldn't survive the weed eater long, and in general this was a spot that would be pretty hard to grow at all, much less thrive. The potential beauty and usefulness of the tree in the years to come was very attractive, as was the fact that I hadn't found any other Sassafras here or nearby.

I'd never moved a plant before, of any kind, anywhere, but I knew it would be better to wait until the end of the growing season. So for the next few months, it grew and did the best it could in the shade of its tall pine caretaker, while I slowly learned more and waited for the right time. In the meantime, the deer found it and took away most of its leafy growth, though enough remained that I felt like it would still survive the winter.

Img 7399 The Sassafras in August, flourishing as best it could in this little spot
A week later, after the deer came through and had a bite

Fall came, and the deer took the rest of the few leaves they'd left behind, and I still hesitated to move this ltitle friend. In the meantime, I had transplanted my first two trees in September: a couple of Black Willow seedlings were now living on the banks of the pond, after they'd volunteered in the back near the Burn Pile, destined for destruction. 

They both seemed to be doing really well, and I was feeling more confident about my burgeoning transplant skills – but I still hesitated with the Sassafras. It was still the only one I'd found, and it was growing so closely to the pine, not out on its own in an already muddy patch of yard. 

So again there it sat, checking on it daily during my morning walks with Loki. Hanging on, surviving the winter, reduced to a bare twig that was maybe, finally, not enticing to the passing wildlife for a while. 

Now, these last few weeks, as Spring was coming in early and strong, I knew that I needed to finally make the move but I was still nervous. I'd recently moved a young Elderberry and another Black Willow that'd come up by the Burn Pile, but they didn't go so well. The young Elderberry was maybe actually too young, and the Willow actually snapped off of most of its root base when I rushed a bit as I tried to dig it out from its spot. (They're both still alive, so far.)

On Thursday, as I finished planting the second of our new Mayhaws, I realized it was time to move the Sassafras. I gathered all the necessary tools and materials -- the watering can to soak the soil and ease the process, a trowel to carefully loosen the tree from its spot, a small pot with some planting soil for it to live in for now, and a foam pad to kneel on so that I could be comfortable and take the time I needed to do it all. I would really take care this time, not rush anything, not force anything, but work with the plant. 

I watered the area a bit, and then knelt in front of this scraggly little twig, now turning a bit green with the Spring's life and a few tiny budding leaves starting to show. I thanked it for holding on through the winter, and thanked the Pine for taking care of it for this time so far. Studying and clearing the spot around the base of its small trunk, I gently drove in the trowel as far away as I could that still felt close enough to lever it out without breaking any roots. After working the area loose, I realized I would need to use my bare hands to safely do what it needed. 

I poured a bit more water and started to work the base of the trunk loose, clearing away the mud as I went. There was no pulling, just sort of a shifting as I went, trying to find the larger branching roots that it had grown so far, gently separating it from the roots of the other nearby plants growing in this shady microcove. Before long, the little Sassafras was free, coming right out with a gentle lift, as intact as I could have ever hoped for. 

The freed Sassafras

I carefully lowered it into the half-filled pot, placing the roots as well as I could so they'd have room to grow, and filled in the rest to welcome it to its new home. Taking my first look at the first wild plant I'd ever potted with tears in my eyes, I couldn't help but feel this huge energy, and weight – that this was the first of many, that I was sad it had taken me this long in life to do this for the first time, but so happy that I'd finally done it, and that this little Sassafras would hopefully live on for years to come. 

Now I can't wait to try more, to pot more, to give more of these little seedling who happened to sprout up in "dangerous" areas a chance to thrive in a better spot. I am thankful to my little Sassafras friend for all the lessons its taught me these last few months, and once again I thank it for hanging in there, and promise to do my best to give it a fighting chance. 

The potted Sassafras in all its glory :)