Hot Tree -- Sassafras albidum
Updated: Mar 6
Sassafras seemed to be on everyone's wish list last summer – not just because of the leaves’ cute shapes but also the glorious fall color.
Also known as the mitten tree, Sassafras sports leaves of varying lobes variously described as spoons, forks, mittens, boats and thumbs. You can find all three leaf shapes on a single tree, although the leaves tend to become more boat-like (one lobe) as the tree ages.
In fall get your sunglasses: those lobes take on brilliant reds, oranges and yellows, often on the same tree. In the Northeast Native Plant Primer, Uli Lorimer describes those fall leaves as “spectacular, ranging from vermillion red to fiery oranges and clear yellows.”
This flourish is not just for our enjoyment; they’re like a flag alerting birds to the delicious blue-black fruits hanging on red pedicels.
Only females produce the fruits, and only if there is a male nearby to pollinate its lovely – and fragrant! – yellow spring blooms.
Sassafras has “very high” pollinator value and is a larval host to dozens of butterfly and moth species including the Spicebush and Palamedes swallowtails, and the Imperial Moth.
Humans as well have benefitted from Sassafras for hundreds of years, grinding the roots and leaves into flours and teas and using the oils in medicines and as flavor in chewing gum.
Even today, Sassafras oil, treated to remove a carcinogenic compound, still is used to flavor teas and root beers, and to thicken dishes like gumbo.
Sassafras can be grown as a single tree reaching heights of 30 to 60 feet with a 20- to 40-foot spread, or allowed to sucker and form a colony. It likes sun to part sun and is adaptable to moist or dry soil. It's often found at the wood's edge.
Cullina, W. Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, p. 233.
Hartline, D. Sassafras. Georgia Native Plant Society. https://gnps.org/plant/sassafras-sassafras-albidum/
Lorimer, U. The Northeast Native Plant Primer. Timber Press, 2022, p. 77.
North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/sassafras-albidum/