Sassafras albidum – A Beneficial Wildlife Tree

Sassafras Sassafras albidum is a native tree which I consider a ‘must’ for the wildlife garden. Not only is it an unusual and beautiful tree, Sassafras is a great food source for many critters which can visit a yard. In spring the flowers are a favorite food source for bees and other insect pollinators, during the summer the leaves serve as a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly and in fall birds will devour the fruit as fast as it ripens.

It is beautiful ornamental tree which help to create a stunning landscape design that is shared by wildlife. For ornamental value, sassafras provides a unique leaf shape, lovely form and show stopping fall color. Native to eastern North America (USDA Range Map) it is adaptable and easy to grow under many soil and sun conditions. Sassafras prefers moist, loamy soils however will be drought tolerant when older. I have sassafras growing in very dry oak woods with no issues. It will also tolerate clay and sandy soil but prefers acidic. In alkaline soils the leaves may develop chlorosis and turn yellow while veins remain green.

Sassafras albidum form

Sassafras albidum grown as a colony

Sassafras is a deciduous tree which can reach to 60′ although tends to stay a smaller 20′ – 30′  when grown as an understory plant. It may be grown in sun to dappled shade. When young, Sassafras will try to form thickets through suckering, so if you prefer a tree form you will need to cut back suckers for the first few years. In maturity the form is round to pyramidal, with the branching in layered tiers. The layers form a beautiful silhouette in a winter garden.


Sassafras albidum flower

Sassafras albidum flower

It is one of the first plants to flower in spring and a food source for early pollinators. From April to May attractive, showy yellow green blooms appear on the branch ends. Sassafras is dioecious with separate male and female trees. If a tree is female and has been pollinated, small bluish-black drupe shaped berries will appear around September. The berries are quickly eaten by birds. It seeds easily and come spring you will find tiny seedlings started in your woods, however they are quite easy to remove.


Sassafras albidum leaf

Sassafras albidum leaf

Summer brings large, ‘mitten’ shaped leaves which are typically three lobed on mature specimens but can be single or double lobed on younger trees. Leaves are a medium green which show up brightly through the woods when used as an understory tree or when planted in front of darker evergreens. The foliage, twigs and roots are aromatic with a root beer scent. The leaves serve as a larvae host plant to Spicebush butterfly, Tiger swallow-tail, Palamedes and Pale Swallowtail butterflies.


Sassafras albidum fall color

Sassafras albidum fall color

Fall color is show stopping even here in Georgia where we aren’t known for autumn color. Orange, coral, yellow and maroon can appear on a single tree.

Sassafras Sassafras albidum is easy to grow and has no serious insect or disease problems. While not easy to locate in the nursery trade, it can be found. I can recommend Nearly Native Nursery for mail order and Kinsey Family Farm has it in Georgia for pick up. It is not readily available as Sassafras has a large taproot which makes transplanting established trees difficult. My experience has been that seedlings and saplings are easily transplanted if kept well watered until established and I have moved several of them. With its high wildlife and ornamental value, sassafras is well worth the effort to find.

Sassafras Sassafras albidum is a native plant alternative to Chinese tallow tree Triadica sebifera (popcorn tree), Paper Mulberry  Broussonetia papyrifera and Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima.

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  1. says

    My favorite tree. But not at all easy to grow. I have planted about 30 container plants over 7 years in a meadowy area (they are easy to get at a specialty nursery here, and I have ordered online from Forestfarm). I really want to establish a beautiful sassafras grove, like the gorgeous shady one at Missouri Botanical Garden. Of all that I planted, I have 4 remaining. And two are now becoming tall trees (I am cutting off all suckers) — truly beautiful, especially in autumn.

    In early stages they were badly eaten by Japanese beetles, but survived. Deer have damaged them (a little browse, and also antler rub), but the 4 remaining are ok. The ones that did not survive just didn’t take. I do not know why they were so hard to establish, but I certainly have tried!!

    Thanks for this profile of my very favorite tree.
    Laurrie recently posted..Isanti

    • says

      I have moved seedlings before with no problems but was recently talking about sassafras with a nurseryman. He told me that they are a bear to plant from containers. Claimed that they lived for a couple of years then just died – I have no idea why. He had no idea why. I intend to plant one from a container and am hoping for the best.
      Karyl Seppala recently posted..The Year of the Pollinator Lawn

    • says

      It grows wild around here as well but sadly not in my area. I live in a neighborhood with builders scrape and invasives have taken over the woods as things grew back in. I’m attempting to re-establish some sassafras here. Wish me luck!

  2. says

    I like using the leaves to season my meals.
    In New Orleans, the leaves are dried and ground to a powder, and used in gumbo. Personally, I pick them fresh off the tree to season the stuff I’m grillin.
    stone recently posted..Signs of Spring

  3. says

    It is the 2013 Plant of the Year as voted by the members of the Georgia Native Plant Society. A fabulous tree! As our plant of the year, GNPS plans to have plenty of this great plant for sale at our annual plant sale in April. It is indeed hard to find in nurseries, yet everyone loves it in the landscape come fall. Thanks for spotlighting it.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Wetland Woes

  4. michele says

    I’ve been looking for 2 more native trees for my garden, &I’m really intrigued by the sassafras, but leery of the transplant loss. I’m a fairly experienced gardener with good water access. I’m in nyc; any advice on my chances with a mail order plant for fall planting? And, Karyl, I’m pulling for yours to do well!

  5. Susan says

    Question about Sassafras albidum: I have a 10 year old tree, growing well in Seattle Washington. However, I get NO FALL COLOR. The leaves just fall off at year end after turning yellow/brown. And, only one or two leaves are mitten-shaped. Most are just smooth ovals. So frustrating! Has anyone had this problem?


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