Overview of the Sassafras Tree

Sassafras Is a Top 100 Common Tree in North America

Two leaves of a sassafras tree have turned red in early fall

 Jennifer Yakey-Ault / Getty Images

Sassafras was touted in Europe as America's herbal curative because of purported miraculous outcomes from the sick who drank sassafras tea. Those claims were exaggerated but the tree did prove to have attractive aromatic qualities and the "rootbeer" flavor of the root's tea (now considered a mild carcinogen) was enjoyed by Native Americans. S. albidum leaf shapes, along with the aromas, are definitive identifiers. Young sassafras seedlings are usually unlobed. Older trees add mitten-shaped leaves with two or three lobes.

The Silviculture of Sassafras

The bark, twigs, and leaves of sassafras are important foods for wildlife. Deer browse the twigs in the winter and the leaves and succulent growth during spring and summer. Palatability, although quite variable, is considered good throughout the range. In addition to its value to wildlife, sassafras provides wood and bark for a variety of commercial and domestic uses. Tea is brewed from the bark of roots. The leaves are used in thickening soups. The orange wood has been used for cooperage, buckets, posts, and furniture. The oil is used to perfume some soaps. Finally, sassafras is considered a good choice for restoring depleted soils in old fields.

Parts of Sassafras

Forestryimages.org provides several images of parts of sassafras. The tree is a hardwood and the lineal taxonomy is Magnoliopsida > Laurales > Lauraceae > Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees. Sassafras is also sometimes called white sassafras.

The Range of Sassafras

Sassafras is native from southwestern Maine west to New York, extreme southern Ontario, and central Michigan; southwest in Illinois, extreme southeastern Iowa, Missouri, southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas; and east to central Florida. It is now extinct in southeastern Wisconsin but is extending its range into northern Illinois.

Sassafras at Virginia Tech Dendrology

Leaf: Alternate, simple, pinnately veined, ovate to elliptical, entire, 3 to 6 inches long with 1 to 3 lobes; the 2-lobed leaf resembles a mitten, the 3-lobed leaf resembles a trident; green above and below and fragrant when crushed.

Twig: Slender, green and sometimes pubescent, with a spicy-sweet aroma when broken; buds are 1/4 inch long and green; twigs from young plants displayed at a uniform 60-degree angle from the main stem.

Fire Effects on Sassafras

Low-severity fires kill seedlings and small saplings. Moderate- and high-severity fires injure mature trees, providing entry for pathogens. In oak savanna in Indiana, sassafras showed significantly less susceptibility to low-severity fire than other species. Sassafras exhibited 21 percent mortality of stems after prescribed fire in western Tennessee. This was the lowest mortality of all hardwoods present. The season of burning did not affect susceptibility.

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Nix, Steve. "Overview of the Sassafras Tree." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/sassafras-tree-overview-1343225. Nix, Steve. (2023, April 5). Overview of the Sassafras Tree. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sassafras-tree-overview-1343225 Nix, Steve. "Overview of the Sassafras Tree." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sassafras-tree-overview-1343225 (accessed June 4, 2023).