Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

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.

A 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 about sassafras 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!

Image credits:
Leaves picture: Wikipedia, under the GNU Free Documentation License
Tree growing on rocks picture: National Park Service, by J. M. Reuter
Young sassafras tree: Copyright © 2007 Genevieve Netz. All rights reserved.

9 comments -- please add yours:

Anonymous said...

I have a three yr.old tree in my back yd. It came to me as a volunteer. I would like to move it. Your information tells me I need local advice. Thank you

Anonymous said...

I understand that they resent being moved.

Genevieve said...

The problem with moving them is that they have a very long taproot and not many lateral roots. It's important to get all the taproot, and that's why you need to find a just sprouted seedling if you're going to dig one up in the wild.

The three year old tree may be difficult to move, due to the deep tap root. However, if you don't want it where it is growing, you should dig it up and try to move it this fall. It definitely won't get any easier as time goes by. The worst that can happen is that the tree won't survive the move, and if it does not, you can purchase a replacement sassafras at a native tree nursery.

Anonymous said...

I can't find a native nursery where these are sold. There is one place that has no warranty at all. Any suggestions?

Genevieve said...

I'm sorry, but I don't have any suggestions. It is my policy not to recommend any particular nursery if I don't have personal experience with it. Have you tried doing a product search, using one of the shopping search engines?

Anonymous said...

I am building a house in the Clinch Mtn. area of east Tenn. Sassafras has been recomended for the Board & batton siding. Is this a good Idea???

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I don't think we in Owensboro have the tallest sassafras anymore, it suffered considerable damage in the Winter '08-'09 Ice Storm.

Candy Warren said...

I purchased and planted a small Root Beer Tree a year ago. It was doing very nicely, but I failed to protect it during a recent freeze. Now, it is all brown and droopy. I notice you are in Kentucky, so apparently, these trees can tolerate freezing. My question is whether I should cut it back, or wait until it (hopefully) sprouts again in the Spring? Advice please. I really like this little unusual plant. (It was about 4 feet high when the freeze hit it.)

Amanda Bassett said...

Sassafras is such a great tree! I remember having them in my back yard as a kid; my uncle and cousins would dig up the roots and chew on them. Thanks for this post!

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is