The Sassafras tree, scientific name Sassafras albidum, is a large, deciduous tree native to most of the continental United States. It can be found growing wild and is also cultivated as an ornamental yard tree, known for its distinctively shaped foliage that displays a range of colors in the fall. This large, well-formed tree is appreciated not only for its beauty but also its medicinal and culinary properties.
Sassafras trees have light green leaves that range from 3 to 6 inches long. Leaves are oval and can be single or have 2 or 3 lobes. When crushed, the leaves have a distinct, aromatic fragrance. In the fall, the leaves of the tree display a range of colors from yellows and oranges to pinks, reds and purples. The bark of the tree is somewhat rough and has a reddish caste. The tree also has a large tap root that can extend many feet into the ground. The seeds of the plant are about 1/2 inch long, form in clusters and are bright blue.
The Sassafras tree grows well through hardiness zones 4 through 9. It is a relatively slow growing tree, putting on less than a foot of new growth per year. Sassafras often form multiple trunks that sprout from the base of the plant to form a cluster of trunks.
Sassafras trees start out as a slightly pyramid-shaped tree that eventually rounds out as it matures, with an open, irregular canopy made up of many short, horizontal branches. The tree can grow to 60 feet tall and can spread to 40 feet wide. Sassafras often grow in stands, with multiple trees growing close together.
Sassafras prefer full sun or partial shade. The plant tolerates a range of soils that should be well-draining and acidic. Plantings should be of young trees, as older trees are difficult to transplant because of their large and long tap root. If the tree sends out shoots from the base, these can be pruned away to form a single trunk.
Sassafras is grown as an ornamental, particularly for its showy display of leaf color in the fall months. It can be used as a feature plant in the yard, for medians and buffer zones in parking lots, and around patios and decks as a shade tree. The roots of the sassafras tree are used for medicinal and flavoring purposes and are used to make tea. The dried and powdered leaves of the plant are used as a thickening agent called filé, which is used to make a traditional southern dish, filé gumbo.