Historically, Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee, utilized the leaves, roots and bark of the sassafras tree for medicinal, food and construction purposes. The tree offered sustainability and was a product of its environment and growing conditions. Even in 2010, the sassafras tree has relevance. Soaps and perfumes are products of its oils, and its lightweight but strong wood is perfect for boats.
Three types of sassafras trees exist globally, according to the Flora of China website. Sassafras albidum is the North American species and differs from its Asian relatives in that the trees are either male or female, termed dioecious. The Asian varieties Sassafras tzumu and Sassasfras randalense bear both female and male flowers on an individual plant. Sassafras is the only genus in which one species is dioecious and the others are not. All sassafras types are deciduous and have yellow flowers in spring and purple-black fruit in the fall.
Sassafras albidum is native to eastern half of North America and grows in woodlands where it establishes where the ground is disturbed. At the northern end of the tree's range, populations of sassafras are sparse, so much so that Maine has designated it a species of special concern. Sassafras tzumu is native to mainland China where it commonly grows in thick forests The rare Sassafras randalense is native to the forests of Taiwan.
Sassafras prefers full sun to partial shad and a moist but well-drained soil rich in loam and organic matter. The tree tolerates dry soils with little fertility, but growth will be slow. An acid-loving plant, the sassafras will develop an iron deficiency called chlorosis if the soil is too alkaline. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the tree will grow suckers until it becomes more of a "grove" than a single tree. Sassafras is hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 through 9.
Propagation of sassafras, especially by seed, can be problematic. Some sassafras trees never fruit ,and those that do are often 10 years old before the first flowers appear. The rarity of the Taiwanese sassafras is due in part to its sporadic production of its seed. Collection of the fruits should occur when they turn dark blue. The seeds require chilling at 41 degrees for 30 to 60 days. Sow the seeds in the spring. Digging and replanting the suckers is another option.
Birds and other wildlife feed on the sassafras fruit. Butterflies are attracted to its flowers and also use the leaves as a host for their caterpillars. Among the species of butterflies that are attracted to the North American sassafras are the spicebush butterfly and the tiger swallow-tail. The Taiwanese sassafras is larval host to the rare broadtailed swallow-tail.
According to the USDA, the North American sassafras is "somewhat" available. Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery in Orefield, PA is a supplier. According to the University of Connecticut, a marbled-leaf variety now exists, discovered by Mark Sutcliffe in Glastonbury, Connecticut. The variety is not currently in production.
Parts of the sassafras tree are poisonous. The Food and Drug Administration has banned it from food products due to the discovery of the oil's carcinogenic properties.