Tree of the Week: Sassafras

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  Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a lovely native woodland tree which is used more and more in landscaping. It is typically a medium-sized tree up to 30-50 feet in height but the national champion in Kentucky exceeds 100 feet. Leaves are variable, some entire, some mitten-liked and two-lobed, some three-lobed. Fall color can range from attractive yellows to yellow-orange, especially effective as a grove of sassafras trees.

Sassafras tree in the woods


  Chartreuse-yellow, five-petaled flowers of sassafras, blooming in April are often overlooked but are sensational in their own way as fresh reminders that spring has arrived. Bright scarlet fruit cups which remain after blue-black fruits are shed are attractive, especially if sun-reflected later in the season.


Sassafras flowers

Sassafras fruits

Fall color on sassafras

  Sassafras tolerates wetness, but prefers moist, well-drained, organic soils. Sassafras roots were once used for commercial root beer production, and teas are still sold, but should be used only if liver-damaging and mildly carcinogenic safrole is removed in processing.  Young sassafras leaves are dried to make file powder, which is a spice providing an earthy flavor and a thickening agent for some types of Creole gumbo.      

  Taxonomic Note: The Sassafras genus (a genus is a group of related species) is in the Lauraceae family (a family is a group of related genera). This family has thousands of species in the tropics and warm temperate climates, and includes familiar genera such as Persea (avocado), Lindera (spicebush), Laurus (including bay laurel), and Cinnamomum. Ahh, cinnamon rolls. As I was sourcing this it was interesting to note that the Lauraceae is in the Laurales order (an order is a group of related families) which is closely aligned with the Magnoliales order. This perhaps helps explain the host plants that we see infested regularly by the yellow poplar weevil in Ohio:  magnolia, tuliptree or yellow poplar, which is in the magnolia family, - and sassafras.