Sassafras trees are native to North America, growing throughout the eastern woodlands regions of the U.S. and west to the Mississippi River valley. Mature sassafras trees are pyramid shaped and a few reach 60 feet in height. They are planted for ornamental purposes, and are common in landscaping designs that recreate natural settings using native plants.
Sassafras trees are easily recognizable because each tree has three distinct leaf shapes. The first shape is an oval, the second is lobed and resembles a mitten, and the third shape is double lobed, or a "two-thumbed" mitten. The single-lobed leaves may be left-facing or right-facing, and some people consider this to as four leaf shapes.
Another distinguishing feature of sassafras trees is the aroma. Sassafras trees contain a substance called safrole, which has the classic root-beer scent and flavor. Safrole is found throughout the tree, but it is concentrated in the roots. Dried sassafras roots were used to make tea by Native Americans. Sassafras was the source of root-beer flavoring until the 1960s, when the FDA determined that certain concentrations of safrole were toxic and made it a regulated substance. Safrole was also used to scent soaps and skin creams.
Sassafras trees propagate by suckers that grow from horizontal roots. Colonies of trees will grow in an area from the same set of roots. The trees have pretty yellow-green flowers in the spring at about the same time that the leaves bud out. The flowers are clustered at the ends of twigs. Sassafras flowers are imperfect, meaning that they have either male or female flower parts. Pollinated flowers form small blue-black berries held in a bright red cup on a red stem. Birds and squirrels are quite fond of the fruits.
Sassafras foliage is extremely showy in the autumn. The leaves may be any shade of yellow, red, orange, or purple--often in intensely bright shades.