The hickory tree is older than I, without a doubt, but we’ve matured together.

As summer chills, the leaves go towards yellow, to orange, to rust, and that’s where we are now with this old friend.

Before I knew anything about it I sang about the hickory in the song “School Days.” We only sang the chorus, which included “taught to the tune of a hickory stick.” There are two verses of the song you may not have ever heard.

Apparently the hickory made a tool useful in child correction.

Hickory, a dense wood, is good for smoking meat and making ax, shovel and hammer handles. I have an ancient hoe with a hickory handle worn smooth by cotton choppin’ hands.

The hickory and pecan trees are cousins but the nuts of a hickory need a hammer to persuade them to give up their meat.

Everything about a sassafras tree is useful for something.

They are sold as landscaping features but the sassafras has been popular for centuries.

The tree carries leaves of four different shapes. Dried and ground to a powder they are “file,” as in “file gumbo.” In the fall, leaves were mixed in with corn meal to prevent weevils and in the summer they were tossed in as quilts were folded for stowage.

In the winter I’ll dig enough roots to make two or three pots of sassafras tea and during the summer we make iced sassafras.

Sassafras bark and roots contain “safrole,” linked to liver cancer in rats. Products containing bark and roots are no longer commercially sold. There is plenty of it out there free for the digging.

Mimosa trees abound in the south but serve no useful purpose.

They are attractive, in the same way a pig is cute, but the tree is weak, easily splits and produces more seeds than reasonably necessary. It is a pretty pest.

White oaks have scaly bark and are easily split. They were popular as rails for rail fences and for making boards and wooden shingles.

Using a “froe” or a “shake axe” and a wooden mallet, a guy could produce a big pile of wooden shingles or “shakes” in a day. White oak is popular for furniture and flooring.

My father couldn’t walk through the woods without stopping at a black gum tree and breaking off a pencil sized twig.

He chewed on one end until he had about a half-inch of something that looked like wood fibers showing.

He owned toothbrushes and didn’t need a black gum twig but it was something he learned from his parents or grandparents and kept on doing it because he could.

Sweet gum isn’t good for much, but males in my family used the hollow trunks for “bee gums” rather than buying the box-shaped hive.

We have lost connections to many trees that served us well.

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

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