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Virtues: Sassafras is an easy-going North American tree with pretty spring flowers and large, interesting leaves that turn beautiful colors in the fall. It can be kept as a single small- to medium-size tree or allowed to spread (by suckers) and mature into a shrubby colony. Controlling its spread is easy, however. Sassafras is a larval host for several swallowtail butterfly species and the female tree can produce berries that feed birds.
Common name: Sassafras
Botanical name: Sassafras albidum
Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Flowers: Male and female flowers occur on separate trees. Rounded clusters of small, greenish-white flowers occur at the tips of the branches in mid-spring, before the tree has leafed out.
Foliage: The deciduous leaves can appear in three shapes, sometimes all on the same tree. They may be ovate; shaped like a mitten; or cut into three wide lobes. The summer color is medium green, and in fall the leaves take on beautiful shades of red, orange and purple.
Habit: Sassafras can grow 30 to 60 feet tall, with a canopy 25 to 40 feet wide. It can be a single-trunked specimen tree with a little maintenance, or it can become a multistemmed tree or colony of shrubby individuals (all connected to the same roots) if allowed to sucker.
Origin: Sassafras albidum grows in open woods and along roadsides from New England west to the Great Lakes and south to Florida and eastern Texas.
How to grow it: Sassafras develops a large taproot that resents disturbance, so choose its position carefully and avoid attempting to transplant it in future seasons. Site sassafras in full sun to part shade and well-drained soil. Although it prefers an acidic loam with consistent moisture, it will adapt to drier conditions and sandy soil. If you wish to keep sassafras as a single specimen tree, remove any root suckers as they pop up. Alternatively, plant your sassafras where it can spread and it will create a shrubby thicket. This tendency to sucker makes it a good candidate for a screen or casual hedge in a large space, or a transitional plant between the garden and a natural area. USDA Zones 4–9.
As a native plant that feeds butterfly larvae, sassafras makes a good addition the wildlife-friendly garden in certain areas of the country. For more help in designing a wildlife garden wherever you grow, I recommend Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife by David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation.
Green leaves: Kerry Wixted/CC BY-NC 2.0
Fall color: Suzanne Cadwell/CC BY-NC 2.0
Flowers: Suzanne Cadwell/CC BY-NC 2.0