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Sassafras albidum

Previously known as:

  • Laurus albidus
  • Laurus sassafras
  • Sassafras albidum var. molle
  • Sassafras officinale
  • Sassafras sassafras
  • Sassafras variifolium
Phonetic Spelling
SAS-ah-fras AL-bih-dum
This plant has low severity poison characteristics.
See below
Description

Common sassafras is an aromatic deciduous flowering tree that is found in all areas of North Carolina except the higher mountains. In early to mid-spring, small, bright yellow-green flower clusters are borne in 2-inch stalks on separate male and female trees. Female trees produce a blue, fleshy drupe that is borne in a red cup attached to a red stalk. In the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow to orange to red. The tree is a member of the Lauraceae or laurel family.

The common sassafras is native to southwestern Maine to central Michigan, southeastern Iowa to eastern Texas, and east and central Florida. They can be found in woodlands, abandoned fields, groves, and along fences and roadsides. 

The genus name, Sassafras, is most likely an adaption from a Native American name. The epithet, albidum, means "whitish," and references the undersides of the tree's leaves.

This tree prefers well-drained sandy, acidic soils but will adapt to other soils if well-drained. It will grow in sun to partial shade and is drought tolerant once established. A large taproot makes the transplanting of established trees difficult. It tends to want to sucker repeatedly and will spread to form thickets. If a single-trunk tree is desired, these suckers will need to be removed. Sassafras can be pruned and kept at shrub size by cutting them to the ground every 2-3 years. This tree also needs to be protected from extreme winter weather. 

This tree produces flowers early in the spring and develops uniquely shaped leaves. The leaves are bright green and either ovate or spoon-shaped, mitten-shaped, or three-lobed or fork-shaped. The underside of the leaf is paler or white. The fall foliage of orange, red and yellow had an interest in the landscape. All parts of the common sassafras are aromatic. If the young bark is scratched, it releases a spicy scent.

The common sassafras may be used in naturalized areas or provide a screen in large areas by allowing the suckers to spread or colonize. The tree may also be used as a shade tree, street tree, or specimen. 

Seasons of Interest:

Bark:  Winter       Bloom:  Spring      Foliage: Summer and Fall     Fruits:  Fall

Quick ID Hints: 

  • aromatic, ornamental, medium-sized deciduous tree, matures to a dense, pyramidal tree
  • the bark is reddish-brown and furrowed as it ages
  • the flowers are greenish-yellow blooms that appear in clusters from April to May
  • the leaves are variable from ovate, mitten-shaped, or three-lobed 
  • the leaves are bright green on the upper surface and paler or white beneath
  • the fruits are clusters of bluish-black drupes in a scarlet cup on scarlet stalks

Insects, Diseases, or Other Plant Problems:  The trees can develop a variety of insect and disease problems that are generally not serious. Potential pests include root borers, leaf feeders, and sucking insects. Swallowtail butterflies like to eat the leaves. Foliage diseases such as southern fungus and leaf spots can occur. It is also susceptible to laurel wilt.  It may experience root rot if grown in wet, clay soils. The leaves may turn yellow while veins remain green (chlorosis) in alkaline soils. This tree is highly susceptible to fire damage. 

 VIDEO created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee.

 

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Woodland Backyard Garden Walk
Cultivars / Varieties:
Tags:
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Cultivars / Varieties:
Tags:
#purple#showy flowers#deciduous#drought tolerant#specimen#wildlife plant#native tree#moths#fragrant leaves#nectar plant#spring flowers#fall interest#flowering tree#showy fruits#small mammals#fast growing#privacy#NC native#nighttime garden#native garden#edible fruits#naturalizes#acidic soils tolerant#screening#pollinator plant#black fruits#Braham Arboretum#larval host plant#food source summer#nectar plant spring#food source herbage#fall color yellow#sandy soils tolerant#clay soils tolerant#food source soft mast fruit#fall color red#fall color orange#butterfly friendly#moth larvae#Piedmont Mountains FACU#Coastal FACU#fall color purple#black walnut toxicity tolerant#Audubon#spicebush swallowtail butterfly#imperial moth#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Sassafras
    Species:
    albidum
    Family:
    Lauraceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    Many Native American peoples have historically used the oils in tonics for medical purposes. Leaves and oils have been used in food products, soaps, and fragrances. The wood is used to make furniture and boats.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Root Cutting
    Seed
    Stem Cutting
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Eastern North America
    Distribution:
    AL , AR , CT , DC , DE , FL , GA , IA , IL , IN , KS , KY , LA , MA , MD , ME , MI , MO , MS , NC , NH , NJ , NY , OH , OK , PA , RI , SC , TN , TX , VA , VT , WI , WV
    Fire Risk Rating:
    medium flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Fruits are eaten by eastern bluebirds, red-eyed vireos, quail, wild turkeys, kingbirds, crested flycatchers, mockingbirds, sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers, yellowthroat warblers and phoebes, black bears, beaver, rabbits, squirrels, some eat bark and wood, white-tailed deer browse twigs and foliage. This plant supports Imperial Moth (Eacles imperialis) larvae which have one brood per season and appear from April-October in the south. Adult Imperial Moths do not feed. This plant also supports Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) larvae which have 2 generations per year from April-October. Adult Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies feed on nectar from Japanese honeysuckle, jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, azalea, dogbane, lantana, mimosa, and sweet pepperbush.
    Play Value:
    Attracts Pollinators
    Fragrance
    Wildlife Food Source
    Wildlife Larval Host
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    Heat, drought, and soil compaction tolerant.
    Edibility:
    Teas and drinks are made from the roots. Root beer use to be flavored from the bark of the roots of the sassafras The leaves are dried and ground to make filé powder, a common thickening ingredient in gumbo.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 30 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 25 ft. 0 in. - 40 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Poisonous
    Shrub
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Irregular
    Multi-stemmed
    Pyramidal
    Rounded
    Growth Rate:
    Rapid
    Maintenance:
    Medium
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Shallow Rocky
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasionally Dry
    Available Space To Plant:
    24-60 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    4a, 4b, 5b, 5a, 6b, 6a, 7b, 7a, 8a, 8b, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Black
    Blue
    Red/Burgundy
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Edible
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Fruit Type:
    Drupe
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    Female trees produce pendant clusters of 0.4-inch long-inch bluish-black drupes borne in red cup-like receptacles on 1-inch long red stalks. Fruit displays from June to July, but they mature in September.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Panicle
    Raceme
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Flower Shape:
    Cup
    Star
    Flower Petals:
    4-5 petals/rays
    Colored Sepals
    Flower Size:
    < 1 inch
    Flower Description:
    Male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The flowers (1/3 inch across) are borne on 2-inch terminal clusters before the leaves. They have no petals but have six greenish-yellow sepals. Female trees bloom more profusely than male trees. They bloom from March to May.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    White
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Edible
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Orange
    Red/Burgundy
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Ovate
    Leaf Margin:
    Entire
    Lobed
    Hairs Present:
    No
    Leaf Length:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The medium green leaves are 4 to 6 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide and will often have 3 shapes on the tree ( oval without lobes, mitten-shaped, and three-lobed.) The undersides of the leaf are paler or white. The arrangement is alternate and margins are entire to lobed. Fall color is quite showy with reds, oranges, and yellows.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Dark Brown
    Red/Burgundy
    Surface/Attachment:
    Furrowed
    Ridges
    Bark Description:
    The bark is attractive, aromatic, red-brown, and deeply furrowed with corky ridges.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    Yes
    Stem Bud Terminal:
    Only 1 terminal bud, larger than side buds
    Stem Cross Section:
    Round
    Stem Lenticels:
    Conspicuous
    Stem Description:
    Twigs are smooth, round, and greenish-yellow or greenish-brown with gray lenticels. Buds are 1/4 inch long and green. Young stems have a spicy scent when scratched or broken.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Lawn
    Meadow
    Naturalized Area
    Slope/Bank
    Woodland
    Landscape Theme:
    Butterfly Garden
    Drought Tolerant Garden
    Edible Garden
    Garden for the Blind
    Native Garden
    Nighttime Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Design Feature:
    Flowering Tree
    Mass Planting
    Screen/Privacy
    Specimen
    Understory Tree
    Attracts:
    Butterflies
    Moths
    Pollinators
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Black Walnut
    Deer
    Drought
    Heat
    Problems:
    Messy
    Poisonous to Humans
  • Poisonous to Humans:
    Poison Severity:
    Low
    Poison Symptoms:
    Shown to be a weak carcinogen in experimental animals.
    Poison Toxic Principle:
    Safrole
    Causes Contact Dermatitis:
    No
    Poison Part:
    Bark