Sassafras

Sassafras albidum

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Illustration of sassafras leaves, flowers, fruit.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Paul Nelson
Family

Lauraceae (laurels)

Description

Sassafras is a short to medium-sized tree, often forming colonies from root sprouts, with a columnar canopy, a flattened crown, and contorted branches that turn upward at their ends.

Leaves are alternate, simple, aromatic when crushed, 4–6 inches long, 2–4 inches wide, broadest at the middle; having 3 shapes (entire; with a single lobe on one side like a mitten; or trident-shaped), tip pointed or rounded, base tapered.

Bark is aromatic, reddish-brown to gray, with deep grooves and firm, long, flat-topped ridges.

Twigs are moderately stout, curved upward at the tips, yellowish-green becoming greenish-brown with age; broken twigs have a spicy odor.

Flowers April–May. Male and female flowers occur on separate trees in stalked, branched clusters about 2 inches long, at the tips of twigs; flowers small, yellow, petals absent; sepals 6, spreading.

Fruits in late August–October. Berrylike, widest at the middle, about ½ inch long, dark blue, shiny, attached to a swollen stalk; stalk about 1½ inches long, red.

Size

Height: to 60 feet.

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Photo of sassafras flowers
Sassafras Flowers
Sassafras blooms in April and May. Male and female flowers occur in clusters on separate trees.

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Photo of young sassafras leaves taken in early May
Sassafras Young Leaves
Sassafras leaves emerging in early May have the 3 shapes (entire, single-lobed, and trident-shaped) the species is famous for.

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Photo of sassafras tree in autumn color.
Sassafras
Sassafras is a pleasant tree in cultivation. Its leaves are very colorful in autumn.

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Photo of a sassafras grove showing fall color.
Sassafras Grove In Fall Color
A grove of sassafras trees along a railroad bed near California, Missouri, shows fall color during the second week of October 2016.

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Photo of sassafras branches with brightly colored autumn leaves.
Sassafras in Autumn
At peak fall color, sassafras shows beautiful gold, copper, orange, peach, and burgundy hues.

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Photo of sassafras tree in fall color.
Fall Color in Sassafras, St. Louis Area
In fall 2016, sassafras was the standout species for fall color in the St. Louis Region.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs on the border of dry woods, glades, prairies, and in bottomland soils in valleys; also along roadsides, railroads, idle fields, pastures, fence rows, and thickets. Long in cultivation, sassafras requires full sun for best growth. It is one of our most striking and aromatic trees.

image of Sassafras distributon map
Distribution in Missouri

Nearly statewide; absent from the northern quarter.

Status

Long considered a source for medicinal tea, and an ingredient in traditional root beers and in Creole cooking, the presence of carcinogenic compounds has been banned in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs. The name "sassafras" apparently is ultimately derived from the Latin saxifraga (saxifrage, which means "stone-breaker" and refers to plants in a completely different family). Germans have called the plant Fenchelholz ("fennel wood") for its aromatic qualities. Native Americans in the eastern United States called it "winauk" and "pauane." If you are at a jam music concert and someone offers you "sassafras," don't be fooled: the word "sassafras" is used as slang for the psychedelic drug MDA, a controlled substance in the United States.

Human connections

Sassafras is the traditional flavoring for root beer and thickening agent (filé) for Creole gumbo.

Root tea of sassafras and its close relative, spicebush, has long been used as a folk remedy for a variety of ailments (for example, for "thinning" or "purifying" the blood). There are many folklore beliefs about what roots are the best, such as a preference for "young, red" roots over "larger, white" ones; also, that it is not worth harvesting roots until after February 14.

European explorers in the 1500s and 1600s thought it was a cure-all, and soon Europeans were paying high prices for its import ― but this was back when virtually any aromatic plant was considered curative for almost any ailment.

Since then, science has cast doubt on its efficacy and has shown that safrole, an oil in sassafras, causes cancer in laboratory animals. The FDA has banned use sassafras tea, roots, and oil in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs.

The celebrated folklorist Vance Randolph reported that Ozark oldtimers believed that a sassafras "bat" had to be used when stirring to render lard, as it was supposed to flavor the lard and keep it from turning rancid. Many people still maintain that sassafras wood is the preferred stirrer for the long cooking process of making apple butter.

Randolph reported several other Ozark sassafras superstitions. For example, burning sassafras (which, he notes, makes a high-quality charcoal) was believed to cause the death of one's mother, so no one would burn it or even move it to the kiln, unless his mother was already dead. An old Ozark saying went, "the Devil sits a-straddle of the roof when sassafras pops in the fireplace."

Finally, Randolph also reported that some Ozarkers used to believe that sassafras trees "somehow" sprouted "from grub worms." (Maybe this idea came from its suckering habit and its being the host of butterfly caterpillars?)

The wood has many uses, too. In the state of Louisiana, the floors in the cabins of enslaved people were often made of sassafras wood, as the scented wood was believed to repel bedbugs. Sassafras used to be popular for making bedsteads, for the same reason.

A pleasant tree in cultivation, the leaves of sassafras can be spectacular in autumn. The large taproot makes it difficult to transplant, and sassafras trees send out root suckers, creating a multistemmed shrub or colony if the suckers are not removed. Thus it can be a beautiful medium-sized specimen tree or a shrubby screen if allowed to colonize.

Ecosystem connections

The fruit is eaten by many species of birds, including bobwhite, woodpeckers, mockingbirds and catbirds, flycatchers, and wild turkey. The leaves and twigs are browsed by woodchucks, deer, rabbits, and bears. Rabbits may eat the bark in wintertime.

The leaves are also a primary food for a host of spectacular moths and butterflies, including the lovely black and blue spicebush swallowtail. Female spicebush swallowtails can "taste" leaves with their forelegs, and when they land on a sassafras leaf, they know they have found a suitable egg-laying site. Their caterpillars, sometimes called "leaf rollers," spin silk onto a leaf surface. The silk contracts as it dries, and the leaf folds up, creating a shelter for the caterpillar to hide in by day. At night, the larvae feed on sassafras leaves.

Sassafras trees in the northern part of their range tend to be smaller than those in the south. The range and numbers of sassafras seem to have expanded upon European settlement due to the many woodland/field borders farmers created.