Sassafras is a common tree in the hardwood forests of the eastern United States and is a species you can use for landscaping. It has many features that endear it to property owners and is a low-maintenance species once it gains a foothold. At one time, sassafras was a commercially important variety of tree, utilized for flavoring root beer and for medicinal needs by Native Americans.
While sassafras may take the form of a large shrub, it typically grows between 20 and 40 feet, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry website. In some cases, the tree can exceed 80 feet tall. The leaves grow to lengths that range from 4 to 6 inches and the flowers of the spring exist on 2-inch-long stalks. Sassafras produces berries about 1/3 inch long.
One feature of sassafras that adds to its landscaping appeal is that the same tree can feature three differently shaped types of leaves. Some leaves of sassafras are oval, others resemble the silhouette of a mitten and some possess three distinct and separate lobes. Dramatic fall colors of orange and red add to the tree’s value. The flowers develop in spring very early, with a yellow-green color. The bark of a young sassafras tree is an orange-brown combination and smooth, but the bark furrows drastically on mature specimens. The fruit is dark blue and attaches to a red stalk until it matures toward summer’s end and falls off. The entire tree has an aroma like root beer.
Sassafras can develop through root suckering, meaning you can plant one and eventually have others to deal with. Grow sassafras in the dry and sandy soils of your property. Place them in full sun or where it is partly shady, but realize they grow rapidly, with some able to be 15 feet high in just four years. Leave the root suckers alone if you have room for and desire a thicket of sassafras trees. Remove them if you want a single tree.
The natural range of sassafras runs south from the southernmost parts of Ontario into New England and down to central parts of Florida. The tree exists in the Gulf coast states and into the middle of Texas. It also grows in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region. Sassafras is a fixture of open woodlots and the edges of fields.
If you plan to use sassafras to make such beverages as teas, or to grind the leaves into spices, know that it contains a potentially cancer-causing chemical. Medical science linked this agent, safrole, to cancer in the 1960s, and sassafras lost its appeal commercially. The United States Food and Drug Administration banned sales of food and drink flavored with safrole.