Attractive spring flowers and large, uniquely shaped leaves with excellent fall color make this a popular ornamental tree. The fun mix of leaf shapes—oval, mitten, and glove—makes identification easy, as does the citrusy Fruit Loops aroma emitted from crushed leaves and twigs. Sassafras suckers to form colonies, if allowed, and makes a beautiful single- or multi-stemmed specimen tree. Clusters of greenish-yellow flowers bloom on tips of branches from April to May, before leaves emerge. Pollinated female flowers give way to clusters of bluish-black drupes in red cups on scarlet stalks. Fruits ripen in September and are eaten by a variety of birds and small mammals. Leaves turn vibrant yellow, red, orange, or burgundy in fall. While it may be bothered by a few pests, such as Japanese and red-bay ambrosia beetles, sassafras is a tough tree that adapts to a wide variety of conditions.
Sassafras is often found grouped along fence lines, in fields, along forest edges and dry ridges or upper slopes. It is an excellent choice for a suckering hedge or screen in larger spaces and makes a good transition plant between gardens and less-formal areas. Remove root suckers to encourage a specimen tree. Use caution when siting because its compounds may affect the growth of other plants; however, it tolerates proximity to black walnut.
Grows 30-60’ tall with a spread of 25-40’.
Grows in full sun or part shade.
Prefers loamy, sandy, moist, well-drained soils and adapts to clay. Once established, tolerates drought but not wet soil.
Trunk may be single or multi stemmed. Bark is reddish-brown with interlacing ridges.
A host plant for 31 species of lepidoptera, including several swallowtail butterflies: spicebush, pale, eastern tiger, and palamedes. Bees and flies are primary pollinators. Many species of birds eat the fruits, including robins, waxwings, great-crested flycatcher, downy and pileated woodpeckers, vireos, bluebirds, catbirds, flickers, mockingbirds, and wild turkeys. White-tailed deer, woodchucks, porcupines, and rabbits munch on parts of the tree.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Many different Native American tribes used sassafras to treat a wide range of illnesses, from acne to urinary disorders. Colonists and explorers thought the root was able to cure any disease, and it was once an important export to Europe. The roots and bark were commonly used to treat nearly anything, including skin sores, rheumatism, syphilis, bronchitis, and hypertension. It was used as an anesthetic in dentistry and as a flavorant in other medicines. In recent times, the oils were found to contain safrole, a carcinogen, and the plant’s medicinal and edible uses have become controversial.
Parts of the plant were used to make tea, root beer, tonics, and thickening agents for gumbo.
The bark is used to make an orange dye, and aromatic oils from the roots are used to make soaps and perfumes.
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