Rick’s Native Plant of the Month | Sassafras (Sassafras abidum)

November 18, 2023

By Rick Bogusch

Bridge Gardens

This native forest tree can be found in eastern North America, from Maine to Florida and west to Iowa and Texas. It grows naturally on Long Island. Pyramidal in shape, sassafras is a small- to medium-sized tree, potentially growing 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide, but often much smaller.

On mature trees, bark is deeply grooved and dark reddish brown. Branching structure is horizontal, attractive and called sympodial by botanists. Flowering dogwood also exhibits this graceful architecture. Sassafras has 3 leaf shapes: 3-lobed and mitten-shaped, 2-lobed and un-lobed and elliptical. Leaves are large, yellowish green in summer and brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow and burgundy in autumn.


Sassafras trees are either male or female. Both female and male flowers are small and often go unnoticed when in bloom here in early May. The former develop into clusters of dark blue, one-seeded fruits with bright red stems. These are relished and dispersed by birds.

Often found naturally along woodland edges, Sassafras prefers moist, acidic, well-drained soils and can grow in full sun or partial. It is not readily available in the nursery trade, even though it is a handsome, generally problem-free, pollinator-friendly native. With its deep taproot, it is difficult to transplant in large sizes and is generally sold as small bareroot or container-grown saplings. Growth rate is fast and a small tree can quickly grow large and because of a tendency to sprout from roots, become a small grove.

Sassafras has a long history of use by humans. Indigenous people throughout its range used its leaves and its aromatic bark and roots medicinally and in cooking. In the southern United States, stews with West African origins called gumbos, were thickened with powdered sassafras root, known as file powder. File powder was also one of the original flavorings of root beer. Sassafras wood resists decay and has been used to build furniture, houses and barrels, and for fence posts.

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