October 2023 - Sassafras
Common Name: Sassafras
Botanical Name: Sassafras albidum
Native Range: Zone 4-9. Sassafras is native from southwestern Maine west to New York, extreme southern Ontario, and central Michigan; southwest in Illinois, extreme southeastern Iowa, Missouri, southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas; and east to central Florida.
Spread: Its crown often is narrow and oblong, typically canopy up 40’ wide, with a trunk up to 24” in diameter.
Form: A deciduous understory tree often growing on the edge of wooded areas.. Sassafras has a rounded crown.
Growth Rate: Medium growth rate. Grows 10’-12’ over a 5-8-year period.
Sun: Best in full sun. Can tolerate part shade.
Soil: Medium moisture. Best grown in acidic, moist, organically rich, well-drained soils. Intolerant of drought.
Leaf Description: The leaves are alternate and simple leaves; they are 3 – 6 inches long and 2 -4 inches wide. One unique feature of sassafras is that the leaves grow in three different forms, or shapes on the same plant: an oval shape, a mitten shaped leaf, and a three-lobed leaf.
Flower Description: Flowers are produced in loose, drooping, few-flowered racemes up to 5 cm (2 in) long in early spring shortly before the leaves appear; they are yellow to greenish-yellow, with five or six tepals. It is usually dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees; male flowers have nine stamens, female flowers with six staminodes (aborted stamens) and a 2–3 mm style on a superior ovary. Pollination is by insects. Flowers have a slight fragrance.
Bark Description: Bark of young trees is smooth and green, while older trees have reddish, furrowed bark.
Fall Color: In the fall, sassafras leaves turn a variety of colors ranging from bright yellow, to brilliant orange, to scarlet red or even burgundy. The fall foliage alone makes it a great choice for a specimen tree in a landscape setting. Along with Nyssa sylvatica and Oxydendrum arboreum, Sassafras is a superb native species with a spectacular fall color.
Wildlife Benefit: Sassafras leaves and twigs are consumed by white-tailed deer in both summer and winter. In some areas it is an important deer food. Sassafras leaf browsers include woodchucks, marsh rabbits, and black bears. Rabbits eat sassafras bark in winter. Birds consume the fruit.
- Wide range of soil.
- Does not tolerate heavy shade.
- Does not tolerate road salt.
Possible Disease and Insect Problems: Japanese Beetles and Sassafras scale.
Uses: Excellent for naturalized plantings where the suckers can colonize and native plant gardens.
Where to be found on municipal property: Throughout open space.
- The name sassafras was derived from the Spanish word salsafras, referring to the tree's alleged medicinal value. The specific epithet, albidum, refers to the light or whitish color of the undersides of leaves.
- Oil extracts of sassafras roots and bark were used extensively by Native Americans, and the first European explorers felt sure sassafras was the miracle cure-all of the New World.
- The Creole spice filé includes dried sassafras leaves ground to a fine powder. It gives gumbo its unique consistency.
- Sassafras roots exude chemicals that may kill other plants within its root zone (allelopathic).
- Starting as early as 1584 English explorers were sent to the New World to locate and procure sassafras. Although its medicinal value proved disappointing, oils extracted from the spicy, pleasant-tasting root bark and twigs have been used to flavor tea, root beer and candy and for scenting perfume and soap. However, the oil contains safrole, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in rats and mice.
- The Food and Drug Administration has prohibited the use of oil of safrole and sassafras bark in food, but permits use of edible spices, which contain very small amounts of safrole.
- Large nursery stock and trees collected from the wild do not transplant well. Container-grown nursery stock is preferred for transplanting.
Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses, 5th Edition, Stipes Publishing L.L.C., 1998, pp. 692-693.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center