Are pine needle tea and sassafras tea safe?

Q: Is pine needle tea safe to drink or just some hippie idea I clicked onto? Mark Mauldin, email

A: I found lots of articles online that recommend pine needle tea as a tasty "citrus'y" drink in winter. I have no idea if it is "safe" to drink.

When I was a kid, it was a regular winter task assigned by my mother to go along the fence rows near our farm and dig up sassafras tree roots. Wielding a small mattock, I would dig up a pound or two of roots. I would bring them home, thoroughly wash off the clay soil, and chop them into 3-inch lengths. My mother would dump them into a pot of water and simmer them for 10 or 20 minutes. The resulting sassafras tea was enjoyed by the rest of the family as a fresh-tasting winter tonic.

I was disappointed to learn in later years that sassafras roots contain saffrole, which causes liver cancer in lab rats when it is injected into them in high doses. My mother’s tonic could possibly be harmful, but I have no regrets from drinking it in the amounts we consumed. Small amounts of saffrole occur naturally in black pepper, star anise, nutmeg, witch hazel, and basil, all of which are considered safe to consume.

Q: My father and I are planting a bare root Stella cherry tree. I have read that we should add nitrogen when planting but in winter? What would you recommend? Scott Westrick, Douglasville

A: Your instincts are exactly right. There is no absolute need to add fertilizer when planting a tree, no matter the season. I am aware that there are "starter" fertilizer products available. Most contain a slow-release form of nitrogen and a high percentage of phosphorus as ingredients. It is possible the phosphorus might help new trees in situations where there is none present. That's not common in most landscapes. Almost all nitrogen that is applied will be wasted, since the tree cannot absorb it in cold soil. Research has shown that mulching a newly planted tree with three inches of arborist woodchips is an excellent post-planting treatment. The chips prevent weeds, control soil moisture, and slowly release nutrients as they decompose.

Q: I will be leasing two acres of land beneath some power lines. I want to develop a program that would cultivate bee forage, part of our effort to make Dunwoody a Bee City. I have support from local nature centers and bee clubs but am always open for more ideas, connections, and affordable sources of seeds and plants. Laura Johnson, Dunwoody

A: What an excellent idea; I wish you great success! There is a tremendous amount of information on attracting honeybees and wild bees available from the University of Georgia Bee Laboratory. I've put links to their great publications at bit.ly/beepasture.

Listen to Walter Reeves Saturday mornings on News 95.5 FM and AM750 WSB. Visit his website, www.walterreeves.com, follow him on Twitter @walterreeves, on Pinterest, or join his Facebook Fan Page at bit.ly/georgiagardener for more garden tips.