Sassafras leaves

Sassafras are perhaps best known for their interesting and variably shaped leaves, which may take three different forms.

One of Indiana’s most interesting and unique trees is the sassafras (Sassafras albidum). This member of the laurel family (Lauraceae) is found throughout the state in upland situations. Sassafras are usually medium-sized trees, reaching 40 to 60 feet in height and 1 to 2 feet in diameter.

They are a pioneer species that typically establish in clearings, old fields or woodland edges. They are colonial by root suckers, often forming circular groves.

Sassafras are perhaps best known for their interesting and variably shaped leaves, which may take three different forms. Simple leaves are ovate with smooth margins, while those with two lobes have a dominant central lobe and a smaller lobe off to one side, giving them the appearance of a mitten. Sassafras leaves with three lobes also have a dominant central lobe with a smaller lobe on either side. The leaves have very showy fall color, turning a brilliant mixture of yellow, orange and red. Larvae of the spicebush swallowtail consume sassafras leaves, as the namesake host plant, the spicebush (Lindera benzoin), is in the laurel family.

Sassafras are dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers appear on different trees. The flowers appear in the spring just as the leaf buds are starting to break. Female flowers develop into dark blue fruit that ripen in late summer. Songbirds and wild turkey feed on the ripe fruits.

Sassafras bark weathers to gray but is reddish brown if flaked to reveal the color beneath. It develops interwoven ridges on mature trees. The trunks are often curvy or twisted, creating a distinctive winter silhouette. The bark and other parts of the tree are quite fragrant when crushed as they contain volatile oils. The roots were commonly utilized to flavor root beer until this volatile substance, known as safrole, was identified as potentially carcinogenic.

Sassafras occurs throughout much of the eastern United States, from Michigan east to Massachusetts, south to the Gulf Coast and west to Texas and Missouri. Two other species of sassafras occur in Asia, and an extinct species resided in western North America where fossils have been found in Washington and British Columbia.

Sassafras is an attractive ornamental tree sometimes planted for its fall color. They may be difficult to transplant due to the nature of the root system. However, they may grow from root cuttings taken during winter dormancy. Purchasing container-grown trees from a nursery specializing in native woody plants is the most reliable method of establishment.

Sassafras should be planted in full sun in well drained sandy or loamy soil. They may tolerate more clay content as long as the soil does not stay wet. If not surrounded by frequently mowed lawn, root suckers will become common as the tree establishes, forming a dense thicket over time.

Kevin Tungesvick is a lifelong resident of Madison County. An avid naturalist and self-taught botanist, Kevin is author of a floral inventory of Mounds State Park. He is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition.

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