Sassafras: The root beer tree

Sasafras albidum

Sassafras leavesSassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of the easier trees to identify by its leaves. Sassafras leaves can have a mitten shape, with either a left thumb or a right thumb, or the sassafras leaf can be three-lobed, as shown in the photo at right. It can also have an oval, unlobed leaf. Usually, you'll see all three shapes on the same tree.

The sassafras tree is a member of the laurel family so it has aromatic foliage. Rub a leaf between your fingers, and its scent may be obvious. The intensity of the aroma seems to vary from one colony to another. You can also experience the unique aroma of sassafras by crushing a little twig.

Sassafras tea was widely used in the past for its various medicinal effects. Sassafras root and bark was an important export in colonial times. However, natural sassafras tea has been banned from commercial sale in the US since the 1970s, because of concern that safrole, a compound in natural sassafras products, may cause cancer.

In earlier times, homemade root beer was made by fermenting molassess (sometimes mixed with honey) and sassafras root. Commercial root beer used oil of sassafras and safrole for flavoring. Artificial flavoring or safrole-free sassafras extract is now used commercially, and is available for sassafras candy and other sassafras recipes.

Sassafras trees are native to most of the eastern United States. The trees are typically 35 to 50 feet in height at maturity. Individual sassafras trees in the South, may be taller than this average. The spread is usually about 2/3 the height.

champion sassafras tree is located at Owensboro, KY. It is 76 feet in height. In 1982, its spread was 69 feet and a trunk circumference of 253 inches (over 11 feet) at 4-1/2 feet from the ground. According to the National Register of Big Trees, the Owensboro tree is still the champion sassafras tree for the United States.

Sassafras albidum suckers from its roots, so the tree is often seen in colonies. In our neighbor's pasture, it grows in a colony along the fence row on a hillside, with black locust trees which also sucker from their roots. It's interesting that an article aboutsassafras trees in the Appalachians mentions them growing with locust trees there, also.

Small sassafras treeInterested in planting a sassafras tree? It will do well in a sunny, well-drained site, but will not tolerate shady, soggy conditions. If you're digging up a sassafras tree in the wild, look for a very young tree and use ball and burlap techniques to transplant it in early spring.

In spring, your sassafras will have small yellow flowers, and in autumn, small, red-stemmed, dark blue berries, which are enjoyed by birds. The autumn colors of its foliage will vary; leaves may turn yellow, red, orange or purple.

There are potential problems with a backyard sassafras tree. Sassafras is vulnerable to damage from wind or ice because its wood is brittle. It will form a colony from its root suckers, unless you keep them mowed off. The suckers may be a problem for nearby neighbors, as well as for you!