The sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) at one time was an important culinary and medical plant for Native Americans and the settlers that resided where the tree grows. The “National Audubon Field Guide to Trees” states that early colonists felt the aromatic bark of the species could cure multiple afflictions and exported it back to Europe in large proportions. Sassafras flavored root beer until the 1960s, when scientific evidence showed it could precipitate certain cancers. Observe the sassafras tree with great scrutiny to identify it from its features.
The sassafras tree typically grows to between 20 and 40 feet high, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry website. However, under the right conditions, sassafras may attain a height of 50 feet. The trunk can grow as wide as a foot and a half, but often develops a twisted contour.
A child’s mitten will quickly come to mind when you observe the shape of some sassafras leaves. The sassafras can have as many as three differently shaped leaves on one tree. Some are two-lobed and look like a mitten, while others have three lobes and resemble a duck’s webbed foot. Still other sassafras leaves are simply oval shaped. The green leaves can grow to as long as 7 inches and will change to red, orange or yellow in autumn.
Flowers and Fruit
Before the leaves emerge on a sassafras tree, you will notice its flowers. The male and female flowers do not develop on the same tree. The flowers are a yellowish-green color and grow in clusters as long as 2 inches. The flowers blossom by early May and are .4 inches in diameter. The fruit comes out only on the female sassafras tree and has a dark blue color. The fruit has an egg shape and looks like a berry. The fruit is from a third of an inch to a half inch long and matures on a red stalk, ripening by September.
Other Identifying Features
One of the sassafras tree’s most outstanding features is its deeply furrowed bark. The bark is quite thick and has a deep brownish-red color. The inner bark is the color of cinnamon. The twigs on a sassafras tree are thin and green. If you break one, you will immediately smell an aroma that you will recognize as that of root beer. The drink today has artificial flavoring that smells like the sassafras tree. New leaf buds on sassafras tree are a 1/4-inch long and green in color.
Use the known geographic range of the sassafras to help you decide if it grows in your part of the U.S. Sassafras exists from extreme southern Maine and New Hampshire southward to the upper third of Florida. The border of sassafras’s range follows the Gulf Coast to East Texas and goes north through eastern Oklahoma, most of Missouri and into the southern half of Illinois to Lower Michigan. From there, the range extends east through much of Pennsylvania, western New York State and back into Southern New England.