Sassafras albidum, Sassafras - 2 (1)

by Tony Jovan

GENUS: Sassafras albidum is the only species of the genus sassafras native to North America. It belongs to the Lauraceae family, which is mainly tropical and subtropical. Other members of this family are Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which is found in Ontario, Cinnamon Tree (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), Camphor Tree (C. camphora), Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis), and Avocado (Persea americana).

ETYMOLOGY: Sassafras was the popular name used by early French settlers in Florida and was adopted as the botanical name.

HABITAT: It occurs on nearly all soil types within its range, but is best developed on moist, well-drained sandy loams in open woodlands.

RANGE: Sassafras is native throughout most of the East, South and Midwest of North America. It is restricted to the Deciduous Forest Region of Ontario, and not found north of Toronto.

LONGEVITY: Perennial and deciduous, sassafras is known to reproduce vegetatively and therefore a colony of clones can represent an individual predecessor. The colony itself may be much older than the current oldest individual stem.

FLOWERING: Small greenish yellow flowers appear before the leaves in the early spring, which makes the trees look like clouds of gold when viewed against a dark background. Most individual trees are either male or female (dioecious).

FEATURES: The sympodial, candellabra-like branching structure forms graceful horizontal layers, like some of the dogwoods (lateral twigs from current buds initially outgrow the terminal shoot). A very intriguing winter silhouette results from the branching habit. The bark of young stems is light green; that of older stems is deeply furrowed, or irregularly broken into broad, flat ridges. The leaves are smooth, sweetly fragrant when crushed, and 7 to 18 cm (3-7 inches) long. The variety of leaf shapes to be found on one individual is a distinctive trait of this species. Leaves can be unlobed, or with two or three lobes. This trait lends to the common name, Mitten Tree. The leaves are bright yellow-green in spring, maturing to a blue-green in summer and turning brilliant shades of red, gold, orange or purple in the autumn. All parts of the tree are pleasantly aromatic. In fact, it is difficult for one to keep from "scratching and sniffing" this tree.

FRUIT: The female bears lustrous dark blue fruit (with a fleshy layer surrounding one or more seeds) on bright scarlet stalks in late summer (reminiscent of a golf ball on tee). Good seed crops are produced in alternate years.

HEIGHT: Single-stemmed specimens growing under favourable conditions can reach dimensions of over 18 m (60 ft) in height and 100 cm (3 ft) in diameter. Large specimens can reach 30 m (100 ft) in height. More frequently, it is found as a small tree.

CULTURE: Sassafras requires full sun for best growth. It is difficult to transplant; container- grown stock, seed or seedlings are recommended. It is intolerant of road salt and ozone pollution. Root suckering is prevalent in sassafras. It is less likely to send up suckers if its roots and stems are not damaged or disturbed.

NOTE: Sassafras is allelopathic and can discourage the growth of certain other plants within its root zone.

ECOLOGY: Sassafras is a fire-adapted species. It is quite resilient to such disturbance, and post- fire regeneration occurs in several forms or strategies: adventitious buds at root crowns (suckering), ground residual colonizer (i.e., existing seed bank), initial offsite colonizer (i.e., seed dispersal) and crown residual colonizer (remaining undamaged stems). Sassafras can also be found in late seral stages of succession. It can maintain a presence in climax forest stands in the canopy layer by gap-phase regeneration. It has been found that by maintaining a presence in the shrub layer (as stunted individuals, viable ramets (roots) of existing individual trees, seedlings or via the seed bank), this tree is able to exploit canopy gaps. The ripe fruit are sought by squirrels and many birds (bluebirds, catbirds, vireos and quail). These same animals are the disseminating vectors. Sassafras serves as a host plant for one of our most spectacular butterflies, the colourful spicebush swallowtail.

NOTE: The First Nation peoples utilize sassafras in flavouring foods and in herbal remedies. The roots are used to provide root beer flavour. It is also an important ingredient in Cajun and Creole gumbos. The file powder used in this dish is in fact a culinary creation of the Choctaw Indians native to Louisiana; gumbo is the derivative of Kombo, the Choctaw word for sassafras. Sassafras oil is extracted from the root bark for use by the perfume industry, primarily for scenting soaps. It is also used as an antiseptic. The wood is very durable, and was once used for dugout canoes.


Baur, Dagmar. 2000. Personal communication.

Brills, Steven. 1994. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so wild) Places (New York: Hearst Books), p.221.

Dirr, Michael. 1983. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Champaign, Illinois: Stipes Publishing Company).

Layberry, Ross, Peter Hall and Donald Lafontaine.1998. The Butterflies of Canada. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).

Soper, James and Margaret Heimburger. 1982. Shrubs of Ontario. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum).

Strenburg, Guy and Jim Wilson. 1995. Landscaping with Native Trees. (Shelburne, Vermont: Chapters Publishing).

Walter, Eugene. 1971. American Cooking Southern Style/ Foods of the World, (New York: Time-Life Books).

United States Department of Agriculture. 1998. Forest Science. Fire Effects Information System.

(The format for this article follows that used by Zile Zichmanis and James Hodgins in their wonderful book, Flowers of the Wild: Ontario and the Great Lakes Region, published by Oxford University Press, 1982.)

Tony Jovan is co-chair of the High Park Volunteer Stewardship program in Toronto, Ontario.

Cultivation Native Plants to Know Sassafras albidum, Sassafras - 2 (1)