Common Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Cinnamon Wood, Common Sassafras, Mitten Tree, Sassafras, White Sassafras

A southern Louisiana specialty, gumbo is a delicious stew with a number of variations but is usually seasoned with fine, ground sassafras leaves at the end of the cooking process. What is a sassafras tree and where do sassafras trees grow? Keep reading to learn more.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Sassafras albidum (sassafras, white sassafras, red sassafras, or silky sassafras) is a species of Sassafras native to eastern North America, from southern Maine and southern Ontario west to Iowa, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas. It occurs throughout the eastern deciduous forest habitat type, at altitudes of up to 1,500 m (4,900 ft) above sea level. It formerly also occurred in southern Wisconsin, but is extirpated there as a native tree.

Sassafras albidum is a medium-sized deciduous tree growing to 15–20 m (49–66 ft) tall, with a canopy up to 12 m (39 ft) wide, with a trunk up to 60 cm (24 in) in diameter, and a crown with many slender sympodial branches. The bark on the trunk of mature trees is thick, dark red-brown, and deeply furrowed. The shoots are bright yellow-green at first with mucilaginous bark, turning reddish brown, and in two or three years begin to show shallow fissures. 

The leaves are alternate, green to yellow-green, ovate or obovate, 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long and 5–10 cm (2–4 in) broad with a short, slender, slightly grooved petiole. They come in three different shapes, all of which can be on the same branch; three-lobed leaves, unlobed elliptical leaves, and two-lobed leaves; rarely, there can be more than three lobes. In fall, they turn to shades of yellow, tinged with red. 

The flowers are produced in loose, drooping, few-flowered racemes up to 5 cm (2 in) long in early spring shortly before the leaves appear; they are yellow to greenish-yellow, with five or six tepals. It is usually dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees; male flowers have nine stamens, female flowers with six staminodes (aborted stamens) and a 2–3 mm style on a superior ovary. Pollination is by insects. 

The fruit is a dark blue-black drupe 1 cm (0.39 in) long containing a single seed, borne on a red fleshy club-shaped pedicel 2 cm (0.79 in) long; it is ripe in late summer, with the seeds dispersed by birds. The cotyledons are thick and fleshy. All parts of the plant are aromatic and spicy. The roots are thick and fleshy, and frequently produce root sprouts which can develop into new trees.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sassafras is a low-maintenance, hardy tree. The only regular care it requires is when you grow it as a specimen tree. In that case you need to keep removing the root suckers by cutting them at ground level, or else it will have a shrubby appearance or grow into a thicket. 

The leaves of sassafras are edible and quite tasty. They are mildly citric, slightly like lemongrass. If you do want to take a taste, reach for young leaves, as older leaves can be bitter.

Sunlight

Sassafras grows well in both full sun and part shade, ideally in patchy sun, growing as an understory tree. Depending on the location, the canopy is different. In full sun, it’s broad and leafy whereas in understory locations, it has a single layer of umbrella-shaped branches. The tree does not tolerate deep shade.

Temperature and Humidity

Sassafras is tolerant of a wide range of climate conditions, from subzero temperatures to humidity and heat. In colder climates, the tree develops a more shrub-like appearance.

Watering

It is absolutely crucial to grow Common sassafras in well-drained soils since saturated soil conditions can cause root damage. When young the tree needs evenly moist soil but be careful not to overwater it. When it has become established this tree will only require additional watering in times of drought. Then, water it occasionally and deeply, allowing the topsoil to dry before repeating.

Soil

Sassafras grows well in loamy as well as sandy soil. Good soil drainage is especially important. The tree does not tolerate soggy soil.

Fertilizing

Common sassafras seedlings need plenty of phosphorus to ensure good development, so use an N-P-K fertilizer in a ratio such as 10-5-5 at this time. When the tree has developed it may not need additional fertilization when grown in rich soil. In poorer soils, it is a good idea to apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer at the start of each growing season.

Planting Instructions

Pruning

If you grow sassafras as a specimen, it does not require much pruning other than removing weak branches in late winter or early spring before tree leaves out. It is, however, a tree that colonizes the area, sending up small sassafras in the surrounding area. This is not a big deal if you mow or weed regularly, but if you want a low-maintenance tree, this may not be the one for you.

Sassafras stands can be pruned to give the thickets a neater appearance but it’s not essential for tree health.

Propagation

Because of their large taproot, sassafras is difficult to transplant. Container-grown nursery trees have the best chances of survival. 

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests & Plant Diseases 

As a tree that is native to North America, sassafras is generally not affected by many pests and diseases. Two invasive pests from Asia, however, can be a problem: Japanese beetles and the redbay ambrosia beetle, which is not directly damaging the tree, but transmits laurel wilt disease, a deadly fungus, into the sapwood of the tree. When you notice that your sassafras tree is wilting and dying from the fungus, it is unfortunately already too late.

The other serious pest is the sassafras borer. The larvae bore holes in the bark of the terminal (i.e. the “head” of a tree branch) and the tips of small branches, resulting in wilting of the foliage. Young trees are especially susceptible and might die if the infestation is major. Woodpeckers might come to your rescue by eating small numbers of the larvae and pupae. For a non-chemical control measure, remove infested terminals and branches, in which the female beetles have laid their eggs. Safely dispose of the branches in the trash or destroy them to break the two-year life cycle of the border. 

Common Problems

Sassafras prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil so if the leaves turn chlorotic, the soil might be too alkaline. The tree is also vulnerable to ice storm damage.

Sassafras has a disproportionately slender trunk that can be as thin as six to eight inches in diameter when grown as an understory tree, which makes it susceptible to wind breakage.

III. Uses and Benefits 

All parts of the Sassafras albidum plant have been used for human purposes, including stems, leaves, bark, wood, roots, fruit, and flowers. Sassafras albidum, while native to North America, is significant to the economic, medical, and cultural history of both Europe and North America. In North America, it has particular culinary significance, being featured in distinct national foods such as traditional root beer, filé powder, and Louisiana Creole cuisine. Sassafras albidum was an important plant to many Native Americans of the southeastern United States and was used for many purposes, including culinary and medicinal purposes, before the European colonization of North America. Its significance for Native Americans is also magnified, as the European quest for sassafras as a commodity for export brought Europeans into closer contact with Native Americans during the early years of European settlement in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Florida, Virginia, and parts of the Northeast.

  • Use by Native Americans

Sassafras albidum was a well-used plant by Native Americans in what is now the Southeastern United States prior to European colonization. The Choctaw word for sassafras is “Kvfi,” and it was used by them principally as a soup thickener. It was known as “Winauk” in Delaware and Virginia and is called “Pauame” by the Timuca.

Some Native American tribes used the leaves of sassafras to treat wounds by rubbing the leaves directly into a wound, and used different parts of the plant for many medicinal purposes such as treating acne, urinary disorders, and sicknesses that increased body temperature, such as high fevers. They also used the bark as a dye, and as a flavoring.

Sassafras wood was also used by Native Americans in the Southeastern United States as a fire-starter because of the flammability of its natural oils.

In cooking, sassafras was used by some Native Americans to flavor bear fat, and to cure meats. Sassafras is still used today to cure meat. Use of filé powder by the Choctaw in the Southern United States in cooking is linked to the development of gumbo, a signature dish of Louisiana Creole cuisine.

  • Modern culinary use and legislation

Sassafras albidum is used primarily in the United States as the key ingredient in home brewed root beer and as a thickener and flavoring in traditional Louisiana Creole gumbo.

Filé powder, also called gumbo filé, for its use in making gumbo, is a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. It was traditionally used by Native Americans in the Southern United States, and was adopted into Louisiana Creole cuisine. Use of filé powder by the Choctaw in the Southern United States in cooking is linked to the development of gumbo, the signature dish of Louisiana Creole cuisine that features ground sassafras leaves. The leaves and root bark can be pulverized to flavor soup and gravy, and meat, respectively.

Sassafras roots are used to make traditional root beer, although they were banned for commercially mass-produced foods and drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Laboratory animals that were given oral doses of sassafras tea or sassafras oil that contained large doses of safrole developed permanent liver damage or various types of cancer. In humans, liver damage can take years to develop and it may not have obvious signs. 

Along with commercially available sarsaparilla, sassafras remains an ingredient in use among hobby or microbrew enthusiasts. While sassafras is no longer used in commercially produced root beer and is sometimes substituted with artificial flavors, natural extracts with the safrole distilled and removed are available. Most commercial root beers have replaced the sassafras extract with methyl salicylate, the ester found in wintergreen and black birch (Betula lenta) bark.

Sassafras tea was also banned in the U.S. in 1977, but the ban was lifted with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994.

  • Safrole oil, aromatic uses, MDA

Safrole can be obtained fairly easily from the root bark of Sassafras albidum via steam distillation. It has been used as a natural insect or pest deterrent. Godfrey’s Cordial, as well as other tonics given to children that consisted of opiates, used sassafras to disguise other strong smells and odors associated with the tonics. It was also used as an additional flavoring to mask the strong odors of homemade liquor in the United States.

Commercial “sassafras oil,” which contains safrole, is generally a byproduct of camphor production in Asia or comes from related trees in Brazil. Safrole is a precursor for the manufacture of the drug MDMA, as well as the drug MDA (3-4 methylenedioxyamphetamine) and as such, its transport is monitored internationally. Safrole is a List I precursor chemical according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The wood is dull orange brown, hard, and durable in contact with the soil; it was used in the past for posts and rails, small boats and ox-yokes, though scarcity and small size limits current use. Some is still used for making furniture.

Common Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) Details

Common name Cinnamon Wood, Common Sassafras, Mitten Tree, Sassafras, White Sassafras
Botanical name Sassafras albidum
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 30 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
Width 30 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Green