What is a Sassafras Tree? - Home Stratosphere

What is a Sassafras Tree?

Here is a comprehensive look at the Sassafras Tree, what it looks like, how it reproduces, the sassafras tree's many used and a few FAQs answered.

This is a close look at the leaves and branches of a mature Sassafras tree.

There’s a chance that you’ve had a traditional root beer that is flavored with sassafras root bark. The sassafras plant is incredible, growing anywhere from a small shrub or thicket to an impressive tree, this woody creature gives so much more to humans and animals than just shade.

Sassafras has been used traditionally for cosmetic and medicinal purposes and is a key ingredient in Louisiana Creole cuisine. Every single part of this tree releases a pleasant citrus-like aroma; twigs, leaves, flowers, bark.

If you’re curious about other kinds of trees, just as cool as the sassafras, head on over to 101 Types of Trees to keep learning!

Sassafras Albidum

The sassafras tree consists of three extant (existing) species and one extinct species. They are all part of the Lauraceae family and are a deciduous tree native to eastern North America, and eastern Asia.

The word sassafras comes from the Latin word saxifrage, which means “stone breaking”. This could be in reference to the stone fruit it produces, or its ability to grow roots in the cracks or large boulders. It is also known as fennel wood due to its incredible aroma, and as Winauk by certain Native American peoples.

Some other common names include sassafras, red sassafras, white sassafras, and silky sassafras. This tree is best known for its incredible medicinal properties, and because all parts of the tree are wonderfully fragrant. Sassafras oil is actually what was used to flavor root beer back in the day!

How Many Types of Sassafras Trees are There?

There are 4 species of sassafras tree; 3 of which still exist, and 1 that is extinct. They are members of the lauraceae plant family. There are 2 species that are endemic (do not occur anywhere else) to western North America, and the other 2 species are endemic to eastern Asia.

This article is focusing on sassafras albidum, but here are the other 3 species:

Sassafras Hesperia

This is the species of sassafras that is extinct. They are only known to have existed in British Columbia, Canada, thanks to fossilized records. They produce dioecious flowers.

Sassafras Tzumu

This is a look at a Sassafras Tzumu tree that stands out against the green landscape.

This species of sassafras is endemic to southwestern and central China, specifically Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunana, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Yunnun, and Zhejiang. This tree more commonly has 3 lobed leaves. They produce monoecious flowers.

Sassafras Randaiense

This species of sassafras is endemic to Taiwan. They produce monoecious flowers.

What do Sassafras Trees Look Like?

Root System

Sassafras trees have a surface root system, which will rarely grow more than 12 inches into the ground. However, in drier conditions, they will grow an additional taproot. Taproots (which they have in common with carrots) grow far more deeply into the soil, in order to access water reserves in draught seasons.

Dimensions

Sassafras trees differ greatly in dimension from location to location, they can be anywhere from a 9-meter shrub to a 35-meter tall tree. Depending on the height of the tree, the trunk diameter will vary from 8 inches to 20 inches.

Growth Pattern

These trees have unique growth patterns in that they develop sympodial branches. These types of branches are composed of one primary shoot that is the strongest, and each subsequent branch off from there is a weaker and thinner branch.

Branches grow quite low on the trunk of the tree, with many stalks and branchlets. This creates a very robust and full crown with much coverage. Sassafras makes for a great shade tree.

Bark

A young tree will have smooth bark that is anywhere from orangey-brown to yellow-brown. A mature tree will become a darker red-brown color and is deeply furrowed. Shoots develop initially in a yellow-green color and they are highly mucilaginous with a citrus-like aroma. As they age they will turn the same color as the trunk bark.

Foliage

This is a close look at the bright leaves of a Sassafras tree.

Sassafras’ are unique in that their leaves can vary from tree to tree. They will most commonly have 5 lobes, but there are some rarities where they are 3-lobed. Shapes will vary from being bilobed (shaped like a mitten), trilobed (3-pronged), or ovular and without lobes. A 3-lobed leaf is more common in the Asian species of Sassafras.

Leaves first emerge in early spring as a delicate green color. They will mature into deep green, glossy leaves, and will turn a dizzying array of fall colors before they fall. Some will have purple, red, orange, and green all on one tree, and sometimes just on one sassafras leaf! When crushed, these leaves also have a very attractive fragrance.

How do Sassafras Trees Reproduce?

Flowers

This is a close look at the bright yellow flowers of a sassafras tree.

Sassafras albidum has dioecious flowers, meaning that male flowers and female flowers occur on separate trees. This means that they must be pollinated by insects.

Female flowers are very tiny with six petals and are a bright yellow color. Male flowers look very similar in a bright yellow, with slightly shorter petals that are less drooping. Pollen is taken from the male flower from the male tree and brought to the flowers of the female tree by bees or other pollinators.

Fruit

Once a tree has been successfully pollinated, it will produce fruit in the form of a drupe. A drupe is a fruit with one pit in the middle and is encompassed by softy, juicy flesh. In other words, they produce stone fruits, much like peaches and apricots. A sassafras fruit is blue-black when ripe, and will fall in the later summer.

Root Suckers

Sassafras trees are also able to reproduce through root suckers. When a mother tree has died, new sassafras seedlings are able to sprout from either the chopped stump or directly from the roots of the mother tree. However, this means that the new sapling will have the same genetic makeup as the mother tree, and may be vulnerable due to lack of genetic diversity.

Are Sassafras Trees Deciduous or Coniferous?

All part of the Lauraceae family, though most of those members are usually evergreen. Lauraceae plants are common shrubs that are highly adaptable to heavy rainfall and humidity. Sassafras trees are deciduous, though most Lauraceae species are evergreen, they will sometimes experience leaf loss due to a very dry season or other environmental change.

It is a common misconception to take coniferous trees as being the opposite of deciduous, but the opposite is evergreen. Evergreen trees remain green all year.  There are some deciduous conifers, which are trees that have needles that fall seasonally.

In the case of the sassafras tree, they are purely deciduous. They are one of the only members of the Lauraceae family to be this type. They shed their leaves in the fall to go dormant in the winter months.

Where do Sassafras Trees Grow?

Sassafras grows in temperate climates in eastern North America. They grow as far north as southern Ontario in Canada, and down towards southern Maine, Iowa, central Florida, and eastern Texas.

They will most commonly be found growing in woods without a dense forest canopy, in open fields, and growing along fences.

What are the Growing Conditions of a Sassafras Tree?

This is a foggy morning view of sassafras trees.

Soil

Sassafras trees are not particularly tolerant to many types of soil. They grow best in moist, well-drained, sandy loam soil. It can be alkaline soil or acidic soil.

Sun Exposure

These trees are shade intolerant, and that is indicative of their growing locations. They will only grow in areas where they do not have to compete for sun exposure.

Water

Though they are tolerant to drought thanks to their taproot system, sassafras trees do prefer to exist in moist areas with a healthy amount of annual precipitation. For this reason, they have not developed past the midwest.

How are Sassafras Trees Used?

Wood

The wood of the sassafras tree has an incredibly high oil content, and in the past has been very popular in shipbuilding and other water-contact construction purposes. It is also very aromatic and a lovely color, and has been used to make furniture.

Additionally, because of its high oil content, sassafras wood is an excellent choice as firewood, as it has a high heat capacity. Traditionally, it was used a fire starter because it is so flammable.

Wildlife

This is a close look at a bird's nest up in the tree.

All parts of the sassafras tree are browsed upon by various bird and animal species. Though for most of them, it is not consumed in large enough quantities to be considered very significant.

Leaves, bark, twigs, stems, and fruit are eaten by many birds and small mammals. Leaves and twigs are eaten by white-tailed deer and porcupines. Leaf browsers include marsh rabbits, American black bears, and groundhogs. Rabbits eat sassafras bark in the winter, as do American beavers.

Sassafras fruit is probably the most popular food and is eaten by bobwhite quails, eastern kingbirds, wild turkeys, gray catbirds, northern flickers, phoebes, great crested flycatchers, pileated woodpeckers, thrushes, northern mockingbirds, spicebush swallowtail, and videos.

Medicine

Traditionally, crunched-up sassafras leaves could be rubbed on wounds, skin sores, toothaches, and swelling because of their analgesic and antiseptic properties.

Twigs and bark would also be brewed into sassafras tea as an herbal tea, and ingested to help with fevers, menstrual disorders, bronchitis, and even scurvy. There really isn’t anything that sassafras can’t do.

Culinary

This is a close look at a bowl of sassafras wood chips.

A very distinctive ingredient found in Louisiana Creole cuisine is ground-up sassafras. It is particularly important in gumbo recipes. Additionally, sassafras was the main flavoring component of old-fashioned root beer!

The fresh, young leaves and flowers of the tree can also be a lovely addition to salads, and as an ingredient in flavoring fats and cured meats. Sassafras essential oil has also been used to make a liqueur.

Cosmetic

Sassafras oil would be created through steam distillation of dried sassafras root and bark in order to produce essential oil. This essential oil has a very high safrole content.

Sassafras oil has traditionally and in modernity been used as an ingredient in soaps, perfumes, aromatherapy, and as a natural insect repellent.

FAQs

Are sassafras roots invasive?

Sassafras trees have both a shallow root system and a taproot. This means that the shallow roots can sometimes interfere with infrastructure and plumbing, and the taproot grows very deep into the soil.

This does not make their roots invasive, but it does make them particularly difficult to transplant. Additionally, they have been known to cause issues when they are planted too close to home.

Is sassafras good firewood?

Sassafras tree wood has a very high oil content, making it extremely flammable and high-quality firewood. Small pieces of sassafras wood would commonly be collected and used as flint, or as a fire starter.

Is sassafras good for smoking meat?

Though sassafras makes for great firewood as it is so flammable, it does have a pretty intense citrus aroma. This may be beneficial if one is smoking jackfruit for a vegan meat option, but it may not be everyone’s taste when it comes to meat smoking.

How tall do sassafras trees get?

Sassafras trees vary greatly in size. They will sometimes only grow to be about a 9-meter shrub or all the way up to a 35-meter tree. It all depends on growing location, climate, water levels, and sun exposure.

How long do sassafras trees live?

These trees are very short-lived, with an average lifespan of only 30 years.

How quickly do sassafras trees grow?

The sassafras tree grows at a medium to fast rate, growing anywhere between 12 and 24 inches annually.

Does sassafras tea have caffeine?

Though there is no caffeine in sassafras tea, it has been traditionally consumed as a stimulant. There are other properties it contains that encourage energy.

What does sassafras mean?

“Sassafras” comes from the Latin word Saxifraga which means “stone break”. This may be in reference to the stone fruit, or drupe, which it produces, or by the way that its roots are capable of growing through cracks in boulders.

When do sassafras trees bloom?

Flowers of the sassafras tree will bloom in the spring, usually around the month of April or May.

When should you prune a sassafras tree?

Pruning trees is done solely for the preference of the landowner. A tree does not need the help of a human in order to grow properly. However, if one is intent on pruning their tree, it is important to avoid doing so in the winter months. This is because sap flows most in the winter, and the cut will end up bleeding sap and creating a large mess.

Otherwise, reserve pruning for branches that appear as being sickly or infected, or if they seem to be growing in an awkward trajectory that can interfere with other branches.

What is the scientific name for a sassafras tree?

The scientific term for the sassafras is sassafras albidum.

Where is the largest sassafras tree?

The largest known sassafras tree is growing in Owensboro Kentucky and has achieved a height of 30 meters.

What is the best soil for sassafras trees?

The ideal soil type for the sassafras tree is sandy loam soil that is highly well-drained.

What is the kingdom of the sassafras tree?

The sassafras tree is part of the Plantae kingdom.

Why does a sassafras tree have 3 different types of leaves?

It remains a mystery to scientists as to why the sassafras tree can have 3 different shapes of a leaf on one tree. Some hypothesize it is because different starch levels in different leaves can determine the shape of the leaf, but that has yet to be confirmed.

Is sassafras a tree or a shrub?

The sassafras tree can grow to be any size depending on growing conditions. They can be a small shrub of 9 meters, or a tall tree of up to 30 meters.

Are sarsaparilla and sassafras the same thing?

No. Sarsaparilla and sassafras both contain an oil compound called safrole, but they are not the same plant.

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