Occasionally, somebody asks me that ridiculous question: “What’s your favorite tree?” As if I could choose just one. If pushed to decide, however, I usually find myself saying, “Sassafras.”
Sassafras albidum is native from Massachusetts and Michigan in the north to the eastern edge of Oklahoma in the west and to North Florida in the south.
It flourishes in the Cincinnati area, which is where it seduced me with its many charms. The spicy-scented foliage, variously shaped like ovals, mittens, or three-toed dinosaur tracks—sometimes all on the same branch—is certainly one of its endearing qualities.
Folded up in a leaf you may find the caterpillar of a beautiful spicebush swallowtail butterfly (if you’re in the East), which readily uses sassafras as an alternate host plant in place of spicebush (Lindera benzoin).
Some showy moths also lay their eggs on sassafras, including the majestic giant prometheus moth.
Sassafras is one of the first trees to begin to turn color in the fall, with some plants showing glimmers of orange or pink-red as early as mid-September in the Ohio Valley. Color peaks around the third week of October there.
Several swoon-worthy sassafras trees dot the grounds at Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati.
I have to say, it makes my heart ache to look at some of these photos. For while I have no regrets about moving to Portland some three and a half years ago, and heaven knows the Pacific Northwest certainly has more than its fair share of horticultural wonders, it pains me to see these dear old friends that I left behind.
I miss them still.
But I digress. Sassafras erupts in tiny chartreuse-yellow blooms in spring before the leaves come out, at the same time as lilacs and crabapples are beginning to flower. Sassafras is usually dioecious, which means that male flowers and female flowers appear on separate plants.
Female flowers morph into deep blue fruits on red pedicels. The fruits attract songbirds such as bluebirds to feast.
One of my favorite things about sassafras is its contorted branching pattern. This is called sympodial branching—the apical meristem (terminal bud) of a branch will sometimes stop growing, and a lateral bud will take over, changing the direction of growth. When this happens over and over again, it creates a distinctive, craggy silhouette. Flowering dogwoods have a sympodial branching habit, too.
The bark is fantastic as well. In time, it develops deeply furrowed, criss-crossed patterns.
A charismatic old specimen at Stanley Rowe Arboretum in Cincinnati shows the rugged texture of the bark that comes with age.
Sassafras may send up suckers, especially if its main trunk is damaged, and it may eventually form a thicket. Attempts to transplant suckers usually fail, as each clone is dependent upon the mother plant and has few roots of its own. Container-grown seedlings do very well, however, and grow quickly.
According to Donald Peattie in A Natural History of North American Trees (a must-have if you love native trees), a tonic made from fragrant sassafras roots was once believed to be a cure for all sorts of ailments, from malaria to “griefes of the head.” In the late 1500s and early 1600s, the roots were an important early export from the American Colonies.
More recently, root extracts have been used to flavor root beer and candy, but in the 1970s, the FDA declared them mildly carcinogenic, and that put an end to that. Sassafras leaves, though, contain hardly any of the carcinogenic substance (saffrole), and today the powdered thickener knows as filé that goes into an authentic pot of Creole jumbo is still derived from crushed sassafras leaves.
Sassafras will grow as a single-trunked tree if suckers are eliminated.
The largest sassafras tree in the world is in Owensboro, Kentucky, about 200 miles from Cincinnati. I never made the three-hour-plus drive to visit it, but it’s reportedly over 100 feet tall, with a trunk 7 feet thick.
In Native Trees for North American Landscapes (a must-have if you’re into native trees of the eastern states), Guy Sternberg tells the story of the champion tree’s near-demise. In 1957, the state highway department had the tree slated for destruction in order to widen a road, but the lady of the house on whose property the tree grew had other ideas. She emerged with a loaded shotgun, and after a long standoff, the state backed down.
I have found a couple of sassafras trees here in Portland, Oregon. I noticed one at the Leach Botanical Garden, and this one on 73rd Ave. in the Montavilla neighborhood gives me faith that this tree can excel here. I’m thinking about planting a sassafras on my own property, but I don’t want to irrigate much, and our dry, dry summers give me pause.
Strangely enough, the Montavilla tree’s foliage is all ovals—there are no mittens or dino tracks to be found anywhere in the canopy. I’m anxious to see its fall color progression in the northwestern climate. Will my love affair with sassafras be rekindled? Stay tuned…