My earliest mentor, a remarkable 80-year-old naturalist by the name of Mrs. Neuman, introduced me to Sassafras albidum when I was 8. Together, we harvested the young green stems and took them to her home to steep in boiling water for sassafras tea— something that is no longer advised. In autumn, we would revisit the small population (in northcentral Michigan, one of the most northern of its native range) to admire the bold, lobed foliage at its peak, in radiant shades of rosy red with yellow overtones. Since then I’ve come to hold sassafras—indeed all the members of the Lauraceae—worthy of inclusion in the garden.
The laurel family is replete with both deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees that are primarily dioecious (male and female flowers borne on separate plants) and have leaves and stems that are rich in aromatic oils. The signature fragrance of plants from this family is somewhat pungent or lemony, with overtones of root beer. Camphor (Cinnamomum spp.), bay leaf (Laurus spp.), and California bay (Umbellularia spp.) are other widely recognized genera in the Lauraceae, each possessing their own distinctive fragrance.
The leaves of sassafras are probably the most recognizable of all North American trees. Each tree can have either unlobed (most common in young plants), two-lobed (resembling mittens), or three-lobed leaves to six inches or more in length. Though this leaf shape can also be found in Asian species of Lindera (also in the laurel family), there are no native linderas with which sassafras can be confused. Sassafras albidum offers a branch framework with a distinctive horizontal planing of the lateral branches, forming a short suckering shrub or a tall tree to 60 feet, depending on the conditions where it grows.
In early spring, greenish yellow flowers are borne in condensed racemes along the branches with male and female flowers found on separate plants. Female plants will ripen fleshy blackish blue fruit on thick red pedicels in autumn. These are eagerly consumed by numerous bird species.
Though there has been some disagreement on the root of the genus name, it appears to have arisen from the Latin saxum fragans, “stone breaker,” referencing the plant’s early use in the treatment of kidney stones, among other ailments. Sassafras oil became a popular early folk remedy that was taken as a spring tonic. In fact, sassafras stems, roots, and leaves were exported to Spain from Florida in the 16th century, making it one of America’s earliest agricultural exports.
It later became apparent that sassafras oil, as it was being distilled from the bark of the tree’s roots, contained a highly toxic volatile component known as safrole. Discovering it was highly carcinogenic, the FDA banned the oil from use in flavorings and pharmaceuticals in 1960. However, it is still extracted and used in the perfume industry. In the past 15 years, this same oil has taken to the streets as a precursor to MDMA, more widely known as Ecstasy. Despite sassafras’s shady past, its crushed, dried leaves—first used in cooking by the Choctaws of Mississippi and Alabama—are still legally sold as file, an essential flavoring in Cajun gumbo. The amount of safrole found in sassafras leaves is small enough to present little or no risk to those who consume it in this form.
The distribution of S. albidum is roughly all states east of the Mississippi. Once found in southeastern Wisconsin, it is now considered extinct there. A colonizing species, its habitat of choice is disturbed, somewhat acidic soil in full sun. Safrole inhibits the germination of competing species. Subsequently, planting sassafras adjacent to vegetable gardens should probably be avoided.
Apart from being part and parcel of the natural heritage of North America, Sassafras albidum offers a litany of reasons to use it in the garden, if not simply appreciate it in the wild. Its excellent autumn tones, fantastic textural foliage, appeal to birds and butterflies, and elegant winter framework encourage us to do more than simply appreciate it in the wild. H