The Common Sassafras Tree

What You May Not Know About Sassafras albidum

Sassafras. Photo by Steve Nix

Sassafras is a genus of three species of deciduous trees in the family Lauraceae, native to eastern North America and eastern Asia. This unusual tree is a medium-sized, moderately fast growing, aromatic tree with three distinctive leaf shapes that make for immediate identification. Little more than a shrub in the Eastern North America, sassafras grows largest in the Great Smoky Mountains. You will not find this plant west of the Mississippi river.

The tree's habitat is very diverse and grows over a large range. It takes well to moist bottomlands and will move into abandoned fields. The amazing thing is that it also does well in most woodlands including dry ridges but can live at elevations to 4,900 feet. It is absolutely beautiful in Fall color.

Native sassafras has a reputation of yielding a spicy-sweet oil that is extracted to make aromatics and tea. The tree also has a commercial use for its leaf thickener called gumbo file powder and used in creole and cajun cooking.

What a Sassafras Looks Like

Sassafras trees have the ability to grow larger than 60 feet tall when left alone and under a hardwood forest canopy. It can grow in pine habitats but never become more than a woody shrub. Its trunk can grow to 2.5–6 feet in diameter, with many slender branches, and smooth, orange-brown bark. It tends to grow in a single group which I think of as "clumpy" and slowly expands from a center clump.

Some parts of the plant are very fragrant, especially the roots. The species has an unusual leaf with three distinct leaf patterns on the same plant, unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three pronged; rarely the leaves can be five-lobed). Young sassafras seedlings are usually unlobed.

Older trees add mitten-shaped leaves with two or three lobes.

Sassafras Ethnobiology

The name "Sassafras," applied by the botanist Nicolas Monardes in the sixteenth century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for saxifrage which means perennial herbs with showy flowers and often with basal tufted leaves. The oil of sassafras is extracted from root bark for the food and perfume industry.

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. 

The Common North American Sassafras

Leaves: alternate, mitten shaped or 3 lobed.
Roots: aromatic.
Fruit: shiny bluish-black berries.

ash | beech | basswood | birch | black cherry | black walnut/butternut | cottonwood | elm | hackberry | hickory | holly | locust | magnolia | maple | oak | poplar | red alder | royal paulownia | sassafras | sweetgum | sycamore | tupelo | willow | yellow-poplar


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Your Citation
Nix, Steve. "The Common Sassafras Tree." ThoughtCo, May. 16, 2016, Nix, Steve. (2016, May 16). The Common Sassafras Tree. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "The Common Sassafras Tree." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).