Sassafras was the bygl-alert Tree of the Week last July 29, but a reprise is in order. First of all, the emerging leaves and flowers have blown me away anew this Spring. Secondly, such a great horticulturist as Deb Knapke e-mailed me that “This is the first time I have seen the flowers of sassafras; loved it!” in response to the use of a sassafras flower picture in one of my Springtime bygl-alerts this year.
That is what is so cool about being plant lovers – we all constantly “have new eyes” as Proust put it, “seeing” things that were before us all along, but upon which we did not focus. A third reason for this Tree of the Week is the importance of having various Plants of the Week for horticultural communicators. This usefulness was pointed out to me last year by Greg Mazur of Davey Tree. He uses these newsletters to send out plant information to Davey Tree branches throughout the region. So, many more Weeks to come!
Now, sassafras - some remembrances (and writings) of things past, others new. Photographs are from my archives over the years – but there are a few that I need to search out, especially fruits, in coming years.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a lovely native woodland tree that is planted more and more by landscapers. 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.
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 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 – a morning improved.
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.
We do see problems on sassafras, including some serious decline in some woodlands, Nectria canker on lower branches of woodland trees, and, as noted, minor yellow poplar weevil damage. But, what a great tree