I don’t know about you, but I really look forward to those sticky evenings around a campfire. Not the sweltering, sweaty kind of sticky nights, mind you. I’m thinking of those outdoor-fire evenings spent with family and friends, dodging mosquitoes and smoke, and trying to find the perfect marshmallow stick. I realize campers roast other things on sticks, such as hot dogs and fish (helpful hint: don’t eat the fish sticks). For our purposes, though, we’ll stick—so to speak—to marshmallow.
A caller recently asked what kind of tree yields the best marshmallow sticks. It seemed like a silly question since the scientific method for finding the right stick historically involved two criteria: It must be 1) close at hand, and 2) long enough to avoid burning oneself. However, it occurred to me if it’s a fresh-cut green branch, the species of tree is important.
Beware Black Cherry
Wild (black) cherry has tasty fruit, but its bark and leaves contain cyanogenic glycosides that are converted to toxic hydrogen cyanide in the body. These chemicals are destroyed when heated to the boiling point, which is why so many animals have been poisoned from consuming black cherry leaves and twigs: they neglected to cook them. Although the amount of cyanogenic glycosides in the tip of a black cherry branch is probably tiny, it’s something to consider.
Birch for a Hint of Wintergreen
Yellow and black birch produce wintergreen oil. Not only is a birch branch safe, it’s delicious. Birch twigs were once the source of commercial flavoring for candy, so you’ll get a slightly wintergreen-tasting marshmallow.
Willow: Aspirin Effect
Willow branches contain salicin, which our bodies convert to acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin. Willow has been used for pain relief for thousands of years. Our native black willows, the ones that grow so large on stream banks, have the highest salicin content of any willow. Cut a black willow stick, take two marshmallows, and call me in the morning.
Witch Hazel: No Thanks
Witch hazel bark is an effective astringent, which means it constricts body tissues. Its leaves and bark are still used to make various over-the-counter products to relieve eczema, hemorrhoids and other ailments. Using this type of branch is perfectly harmless, but unless you need help puckering up, don’t eat the witch hazel marshmallows.
Other Options Good and Bad
Many of our native viburnums such as wild raisin and arrowwood give off volatile chemicals called butyrates after they’re cut, compounds which smell akin to dirty socks. I don’t know how long it takes a fresh-cut branch to smell funny—feel free to experiment.
Buckthorn is an invasive shrub or small tree that has glossy leaves, and berries that are dark purple to black. As its name implies, it also has thorn-like twig spurs. You’re not likely to choose a live buckthorn branch, but they grow just about everywhere, so watch out. They’re not deadly but they are toxic. A buckthorn marshmallow could leave you guarding the outhouse all night.
Hawthorn, on the other hand, is OK to use. An ambitious (and very cautious) camper probably could impale and roast half a dozen marshmallows on the long thorns of one hawthorn branch.
The resin in conifer branches is nontoxic, but they’re seldom used. No sense getting sticky before the marshmallows go on, right?
Dogwood, ash, maple and elm make good marshmallow sticks; safe but plain. But then maybe after some of the alternatives, we should stick with boring.
For help with tree identification go to http://bhort.bh.cornell.edu/tree/trees.htm or call your local Cornell Cooperative Extension Horticultural Educator.
Photo by Flickr user Nina Hale.