The Sassafras Tree Is an Interesting Native Species

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Sassafras leaves can be three lobed, oval or shaped like a mitten.

Sassafras leaves can be three lobed, oval or shaped like a mitten.

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.

Flowers occur in mid-spring.

Flowers occur in mid-spring.

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.

Sassafras is a small to medium tree with brilliant fall foliage.

Sassafras is a small to medium tree with brilliant fall foliage.

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.

Image credits: 

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