The tree here with a thick, dark, blocky bark is Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Sassafras is a good example of a Carolinian tree, one that is abundant in the deciduous forest of eastern North America [including the Carolinas]. It reaches the northern limits of its range in the extreme south of Canada. Sassafras is also known as “mitten tree” because of the distinctive shape of the leaves. They come in three distinct shapes, all found on the same tree. They may be plain oval or egg-shaped; they may have a small lobe on one side like the thumb on a mitten; or they may have two smaller lobes, one on each side of the main leaf.
The roots of Sassafras smell like root beer and were the original commercial flavouring for carbonated “Root Beer” in the soft drink industry. Some people still drink Sassafras tea, but high levels of sassafras extract have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. The sale of all products containing sassafras extract has been banned in Canada. This is one case where synthetic flavouring is a better choice! Look behind you and you will see Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), another iconic Carolinian tree species.