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 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.
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.
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.
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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