Sassafras is mentioned as early as 1574 in an account by a Spanish physician visiting the New World. The aromatic oil present in the leaves, bark and roots led Europeans to believe sassafras could cure malaria, ague, various fevers, colds and lameness. The wood was also said to repel insects. European demand was so strong that English expeditionary companies set off for Virginia solely to gather sassafras. As late as 1610, England required shipments of sassafras from Virginia as a condition for the colony to retain its charter.
In the South, sassafras oil gained fame as a healthful “spring tonic”. It was also used to flavor root beer, candy, medicines and tea. Today health authorities discount possible medicinal benefits and discourage the making of the sassafras tea. Safrole, the plant oil, is suspected of causing cancer when ingested in large quantities. (You should be able to buy a concentrate with the safrole filtered out from a health foods business.)
Sassafras usually grows to a height of 25 to 30 feet in our area. (In the Gulf South they may reach 70 to 80 feet.) Its shape resembles that of a flowering dogwood, with layered horizontal branches tipped with plump flowerbuds. Male trees have showier flowers but the females grow the shiny, blue berries which birds eagerly eat. Consequently you will find new starts in places birds love to perch: under large trees, along fencerows and under electric lines. It also propagates naturally through suckers and forms thickets in fields and on roadsides.
The bark is a distinct green on young sassafras as compared to the much darker trunks of similar-aged trees. Unlike most other trees that produce leaves of similar shape, a single sassafras tree can produce up to four different leaf shapes. Their leaves may be oval or lobed, and if lobed, may have one, two or three lobes. The lobes remind some people of fingers.
Few trees surpass sassafra’s wonderful variety of fall color. The leaves turn to scarlet, yellow, and gold. The most spectacular color shading is the bright orange tinged with pink. Trees in full sun will exhibit more of the red and orange shades. (If you have not taken a fall drive to the top of Mt. Magazine and delighted in the banner of colors produces by the sassafras, hickory and gum trees, you have missed a treat indeed.)
Sassafras is perfect for naturalizing in the home landscape. Place it beneath large shade trees to fill in the understory. Use it as a specimen or lawn tree. Where possible, plant it in front of tall evergreens. The fall foliage will be displayed to its best advantage.
Sassafras tolerates a variety of soil and light conditions. Most insects leave sassafras alone, but Japanese beetles and gypsy moths will attack it. It’s better to buy a container-grown tree from the nursery than to dig it up from the wild. (It’s difficult to harvest the roots intact and undamaged.) As with other spcialty plants, your nursery may have to order you a sassafras. Plant in either fall or spring.