Trees , to 35 m. Twigs pale green with darker olive mottling, terete. Leaf blade ovate to elliptic, unlobed or 2-3-lobed (rarely more), 10-16 × 5-10 cm, apex obtuse to acute. Inflorescences to 5 cm, silky-pubescent; floral bract to 1 cm. Flowers: fragrant (sweet, lemony), glabrous; tepals greenish yellow. Staminate flowers: inner 3 stamens with 2 conspicuously stalked glands near base of filament, filament slender; pistillodes usually absent (sometimes present in terminal flower of inflorescence). Pistillate flowers: staminodes 6; style slender, 2-3 mm; stigma capitate. Drupe ca. 1 cm; pedicel reddish, club-shaped, ± fleshy. 2 n = 48. Flowering spring (Apr-May). Habitat varied, forests, woodlands, fencerows, old fields (sometimes aggressively colonial), and disturbed areas; 0-1500 m; Ont.; Ala., Ark., Conn., Del., D.C., Fla., Ga., Ill., Ind., Iowa, Kans., Ky., La., Maine, Md., Mass., Mich., Miss., Mo., N.H., N.J., N.Y., N.C., Ohio, Okla., Pa., R.I., S.C., Tenn., Tex., Vt., Va., W.Va. Infraspecific taxa have been based on amount of pubescence of leaves and color of young twigs; these taxa are not recognized here. Traditionally, 'sassafras tea' was prepared by steeping the bark of the roots (D. S. Correll and M. C. Johnston 1970). It was once considered a relatively pleasant drink. Several indigenous populations used sassafras twigs as chewing sticks, and sassafras root is used occasionally in commercial dental poultices. Sassafras root was one of the ingredients of root beer; this use has now been banned.
Safrole ( p -allylyn ethylenediozybenzene) is found as a minor component in many Lauraceae and as the principal component (80%) of sassafras oil. It is suspected of causing contact dermatitis and of being hallucinogenic, especially in large doses; it is also considered to be both carcinogenic and hepatotoxic (W. H. Lewis and M. P. F. Elvin-Lewis 1977).
Tree 9 - 18 m tall, trunk to 1 m in diameter Leaves: alternate, 8 - 15 cm long, 5 - 10 cm wide, oval, margin non-toothed or with two or three finger-like lobes (polymorphic), dull dark green above, paler and sometimes hairy beneath, turning pink to red or orange in fall. Flowers: either male or female, found on separate trees (dioecious), individually stalked along a central axis (raceme) to 5 cm long. Florets are fragrant and have six greenish yellow sepals but no petals. Fruit: is fleshy with a hard stone in the center (drupe), 1 - 1.5 cm long, shiny dark blue, spherical to oblong, borne on a red stalk. Bark: deep reddish brown, deeply fissured with flat, corky, interlacing ridges. Twigs: yellowish green when young, becoming reddish brown and shallowly fissured after a few years, shiny, smooth or hairy, curling upward near the ends. Terminal buds: 0.8 - 1.2 cm long, egg-shaped, green, softly hairy. Lateral buds are smaller. Odor: spicy, released from most plant parts when crushed.
Similar species: Sassafras albidum can be distinguished from other Chicago Regions species by its polymorphic leaves that turn pink, red or orange in the fall, its spicy fragrance and its reddish stalked, deep blue fruit.
Flowering: mid April to early June
Habitat and ecology: A common species of black oak savannas and shaded dune slopes, S. albidum can be quite aggressive. Seeds are carried by wildlife into the woods, where the plant colonizes sunny, recently disturbed sites. This tree also grows in disturbed soils along fence rows, roadsides and old fields.
Occurence in the Chicago region: native
Notes: Furniture, fence posts, wooden buckets, and lumber are made from the wood of this species. Oil was once distilled from the roots to flavor medicine, root beer, tobacco, candy, and soap, while a tea from the bark was used to stimulate blood circulation. However, the extracts are carcinogenic and are no longer used commercially.
Etymology: Sassafras comes from the Spanish word for saxifrage, salsafras. Albidum comes from the Latin word meaning white.
Author: The Morton Arboretum
From Flora of Indiana (1940) by Charles C. Deam
For a discussion of this species and its variety [var. molle] see Rhodora 38: 178-179. 1936. My specimens pass insensibly from the glabrate to the densely pubescent form. The species and variety have no geographical range in the state. This tree was formerly, without doubt, a native of every county of the state. It is usually found in colonies because it propagates freely by rootshoots. It is somewhat frequent in sandy soil in the northern counties, becoming rare and local south of the lake area, and frequent to common in the hilly counties of the southern part of the state. It is usually found in old, fallow and abandoned fields where it sometimes forms thickets over the whole area. The entire plant is aromatic and the bark of the root was much used by the pioneers for making sassafras tea. The pubescent form [var. molle] is more frequent in Indiana than the glabrate form. The distribution is probably that given for the complex by the earlier authors.
Deam further wrote in "Trees of Indiana":
"Everyone is familiar with the sassafras peddler who in the spring sells a small bundle of roots or bark for making tea. The tea is reputed to thin the blood. ... In some of the southern states bedsteads were made of sassafras with the belief that they would produce sleep. Floors were made of it to keep out rats and mice. Perches of chickenhouses were made of sassafras poles to keep off the lice. To successfully make soup, it was necessary to stir the contents of the kettle with a sassafras stick."
Indiana Coefficient of Conservatism: C = 1
Wetland Indicator Status: FACU
Deam (1932): Sassafras is usually considered an indicator of poorer soils. In [the southern] part of the state it becomes a pernicious weed tree. It soon invades fence rows and fallow fields, and is extremely difficult to kill out. Wood light, soft, coarse-grained, aromatic, and heartwood brownish. In our area sassafras wood is used principally for posts and crossties. Sassafras deserves more consideration than it has received as a shade and ornamental tree, The autumnal coloring of its foliage is scarcely surpassed by any tree; amd it is free from injurious insect pests. It is, however, transplanted with difficulty; this means only more care in digging the tree and planting it.
Commonly the sassafras is classed as red and white sassafras. The roots of the white are said to be whiter, the aroma of the wood has a suggestion of camphor, and the wood is less durable.
[Regarding a pair of trees on the Hole farm cut in 1866 and early 1870s]: The stumps were seen by the writer in 1918.... Chips were cut from the root spurs and the wood was almost as aromatic as if the tree had just been cut.... The largest stump now measures 48 inches in diameter at breast high.
Shrub or tree to 30 m; bark becoming deeply furrowed; lvs long- petioled, silky beneath at least when young, with 3 main veins, highly variable in form, ovate and entire to 2-3(-5)-lobed, often asymmetrical; fls greenish-yellow, produced at the branch-tips of the previous year, expanding with the lvs of the season; peduncles and pedicels at first short, later red and to 1 cm; fr blue, ellipsoid, 1 cm; 2n=48. Disturbed woods, thickets, roadsides, and old fields; s. Me. to Mich. and Mo., s. to Fla. and e. Tex. Apr., May. (S. variifolium)
Gleason, Henry A. & Cronquist, Arthur J. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. lxxv + 910 pp.