Scientific Name: Sassafras albium
Common Name: Sassafras
(Information for this species page was gathered by Mr. Christopher Hone as part of an assignment in Biology 220M, Spring 2007)
Sassafras (Sassafras albium) is a tree in the extensive tree/shrub botanical family Lauraceae. Like many of the other species in Lauraceae (including the camphor tree, mountain laurel, and spicebush), sassafrass is notable for the abundance and diversity of chemicals that it synthesizes in its leaves, twigs, and roots.
Sassafras was used extensively by Native Americans as a cure-all for a broad range of ailments. Oil from the root bark of the tree was used to treat everything from diarrhea, to nosebleeds, to heart troubles. European settlers and their colonial sponsors were so impressed by the healing powers of sassafras oils that sassafras roots were exported back to Europe in great quantities. In 1602, one ton of these roots sold for 336 pounds Sterling (about $25,000 in modern currency). Leaves were brewed into a medicinal tea and extracted oils were used the make perfume, candy, soap, and root beer.
Sassafras trees are found throughout the Eastern United States and even into eastern Texas and Oklahoma. Cold, prolonged winters seem to be the factor limiting the northward distribution of the tree. In the northernmost sections of its range, sassafras exists as a low, understory shrub with trunk diameters of only 6 to 8 inches. In the southernmost sections of its range, however, it can attain heights of 100 feet and circumferences that exceed 20 feet! On average, though, heights of 30 to 60 feet and diameters of 18 inches are much more common across its natural range.
Sassafras grows well in moist, but well drained soils. It thrives in full sun but can grow in a patchy sunlit understory. Deep shade is very stressful to the tree and can contribute to its failure on a site. Trees in full sun develop a broad, leafy canopy, while those growing in the understory tend to form an umbrella-shaped, single layer, branch distribution. Upper branches tend to be bright green in color, while lower branches and the trunk tend to be a dull, orange-brown. The trunk bark is deeply furrowed with uniform joining ridges. Dense thickets of sassafras trees/shrubs can form from extensive sucker growth from its spreading, root laterals.
Sassafras leaves have three common shapes: a three lobed “ghost,” a two lobed “mitten” (both right and left handed), and an un-lobed elliptical “football.” The distribution of these various leaves is not random on a given tree. Two and three lobed leaves are more abundant than un-lobed leaves on the lower portions of the crowns of small trees and on the lower sides of the primary branches. Vertical branches tend to have all three leaf shapes equally present. It has been hypothesized that the leaves in the lower branches accumulate starches to a greater degree than upper leaves. These starches are known to inhibit cell division in leaves which can then cause a lobe to form.
Genders, Fruits and Seeds
Sassafras trees tend to be either “male” or “female.” Both genders set their small, greenish-yellow flowers in March or April. Pollinated female flowers set round, blue fruit (3/4 inch long) around a single, hard seed. The fruit ripens in September or October. These fruits are eaten by a wide array or animals (including black bears, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, foxes, and many species of birds). Bird dispersal of the seeds is an extremely important factor in sassafras ecology. Seeds most often germinate in the following spring especially in sites with moist, litter-covered topsoil.
Impact on Succession
Sassafras is a very significant tree in the early stages of a secondary succession sequence. After a forested area is disturbed (as by a forest fire, wind storm, timber harvest, etc), birds rapidly disperse sassafras seeds throughout the site. The rapid germination and growth of the sassafras tree over a wide range of soil conditions, accompanied by the influence of its many leaf and root chemicals on potential competitors (sassafras extracts have been shown to powerfully inhibit the seed germination and growth of both box elders and American elms) allow the sassafras, if parental trees are in the area, to reach substantial densities on almost any disturbed site.