Sassafras and mudbugs – what do they have in common?

Published 2:42 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A recent conversation with a long-time friend of the arboretum included a chance to ponder the thought that as children, we both had been well-acquainted with our local plants, especially the exact locations of everyone that had something tasty to eat. Hickory nuts, black walnuts, pecans, chinkapins, blueberries, mayhaw, blackberries – these are just some of the plants that might stir a fond memory of your own.

During my childhood, it was commonplace, and not at all unusual, to know the stories and names of the plants we played among. Sassafras roots were encountered during our excavations, and yielded a distinctive fragrance that blended with the musty smell of forest earth and decaying leaves. Sassafras leaves were intriguing to us kids because they came in three different shapes – those having three lobes, those with two lobes that resembled a mitten, and those with no lobes. Although I will point out that a second grader on a tour here pointed out that they actually come in four shapes, if you count the left mitten and the right mitten.

We kids knew what clover flowers tasted like, and thoroughly enjoyed our hunts for four-leaf clovers. We discovered that wood sorrel, which looked a lot like clover, was sour, but still a lot of fun to chew on. We enjoyed sweet nectar from flowers on the honeysuckle vines and everyone seemed to know how to distinguish poison ivy vine (three leaves) from Virginia creeper (five leaves). We never stopped to think where all this knowledge came from. But where does it?

Our parents didn’t necessarily spend copious amounts of time teaching us these things. Kids are naturally curious. They will discover things; they will find things out. But, they need to be given the opportunity to explore.

My childhood was fortunate to occur during a time when kids played outside – a lot – and shared in the wonders of discovery. We speculate today on the fate of future generations, as time is increasingly spent on hand-held devices and computers. But these are simply tools and can be used for many different purposes. A devotee of nature can use a computer to access opportunities to see things they never would have been privy to otherwise. Watch a luna moth emerge from a cocoon on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

Ever wonder what lies inside a crawfish mound? Here in Mississippi, these structures are a familiar site in low, wet areas of the landscape, such as grassy pine savannas, or perhaps even your backyard after a rain. When we were visited by researchers looking for species of these aquatic crustaceans living in our savannas, Arboretum intern Garrett Newton was surprised that he was able to insert his arm as deeply into these holes as was necessary to capture the crawfish. We learned other facts from the researchers. For example, crawfish occur in many different colors – brown, yellow, black, green, white, red and yellow – and there are well over two hundred species of crayfish found in North America.

Growing up in Tennessee, however, we called these critters crayfish, not crawfish. Unlike our coastal mudbugs, crayfish came out and danced in the clear-running creeks we delighted in exploring as children. With every new rock overturned, we held our breath to see if a mammoth-sized crayfish would be revealed. The tiny crayfish were exceptionally cute, miniatures of the larger ones under the rocks and leaves. It was great entertainment to watch them swimming backwards to get out of our reach as we scrambled to catch them.

As a child, I’d heard that if a crayfish pinched your toe, they could draw blood and I hoped I’d never find out if this was true. We discovered that crayfish molt, and were fascinated by the ones with one big claw and one small one. Why? We learned that these creatures were able to regenerate parts of their body. Wow! They could grow new antennae, a leg, eye, or claw if they lost one in a duel. That was a pretty mind-boggling concept. But we kids thought this was a good design, since hanging out in a family where everyone had razor-sharp appendages could be dangerous.

Play-time outdoors brings a great way to observe, and learn, examples of concepts like these that are literally right under your nose. Follow the life cycle of frogs, observing tadpoles at their various stages, watch wriggling mosquito larvae, duck a giant garden spider web stretched across a pathway (an exploration of elasticity and tensile strength), or observe a water strider cruising in a pond (a lesson in surface tension).

Children on field trips to the Arboretum enjoy telling us stories of the plants, animals, and insects they observe on their property. Being in natural environments certainly brings a universal pleasure to all ages. Not much beats the chance to watch a toddler in turn watching marching ants, tiny tadpoles, or a wandering butterfly.

So, sassafras and mudbugs, what do you think they have in common? To me, they both offer an excellent reason to get outside, and are excellent topics to talk about with a child, giving them an opportunity to learn through your stories.

Mark your calendars for Saturday, February 25. The Arboretum will offer a children’s program from 10 to 11 a.m. called “Nest in Peace”. Take a closer look at bird nests, then shape a nest from yarn and add a baby bird molded from clay with Master Naturalist Mary Cordray. Cost is $2 for members’ children $2 and $4 for non-members’ children. 

For more information, or to preregister for event, call the office at 601-799-2311. Our site is open Wednesday through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information, please see our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu.

For further exploration: 

1) Research the habits, and structure, of crawfish. What types of predators prey on these crustaceans?

2) Search the Internet for a scanning electron microscope image of a spider’s spinnerets.