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Sassafras Tree Identification

Sonia Nair Apr 19, 2019
The sassafras tree is unique for its differently-shaped leaves and aromatic properties. Here are some tips to identify this tree.
Sassafras trees are native to North America and East Asia. There are four species of these trees, which belong to the genus Sassafras and family Lauraceae.
The most common species is Sassafras albidum, which is found in the United States and some parts of Europe. This tree is also known as sassafras, white sassafras, red sassafras, or silky sassafras. Sassafras tzumu or Chinese sassafras, is commonly known as tzumu, and is found in some parts of China.
Sassafras randaiense is the scientific name of Taiwanese sassafras. The fourth species is Sassafras hesperia, which is considered extinct. Their distinguishing features include the leaf pattern and aromatic properties.

How to Identify a Sassafras Tree

Tree identification is mainly based on the physical features, especially for those with unique characteristics. As far as sassafras tree identification is concerned, the unique feature is its leaves, which are different in shape. In other words, a single tree sports leaves in different shapes.
Almost all sassafras trees have leaves with three different shapes - oval (unlobed), mitten-shaped (bilobed), and three pronged (trilobed). Five-lobed leaves are also not uncommon. Sassafras leaves have smooth margins. Mature leaves can be around 20 centimeters in length, and 5 to 10 centimeters in width.
When crushed, sassafras leaves turn sticky, but emit a citrus-like scent. Sassafras trees produce small yellow flowers with five petals. The male and female flowers are produced in separate trees. The fruits are black, and are around one centimeter in length. These trees can grow up to 35 meters in height.
The branches are slender and the orange-brown bark is smooth. The mature trunks are deeply furrowed with a reddish-brown bark. As their roots develop suckers, these trees are mostly found in colonies.

Sassafras Tree Uses

This tree is popular for its aromatic properties, and its parts are widely used for various industrial and culinary purposes. Earlier, the essential oil of sassafras was used for making perfumes and soaps. The oil was also used in aromatherapy, for its fragrance. The bark of its roots are used for making herbal tea.
The powder of its dried leaves are used as a spice in some food recipes. Earlier, people used to ferment sassafras roots with molasses, to prepare homemade root beer. However, natural sassafras products, including the essential oil and tea, are now banned by the FDA; as they contain safrole, a compound, which may cause liver damage and cancer.
Nowadays, safrole-free sassafras extract or artificial flavoring is used in sassafras recipes. Sassafras trees are planted for restoring depleted soils in old fields. These trees can also be grown as fence. Nowadays, sassafras wood is used for making furniture.
When growing a sassafras tree, you need to know that these trees require well-drained soil and a sunny location. So don't plant them in shady or soggy places. You can enjoy the tiny yellow flowers of the tree during spring, followed by its bluish-black berries in autumn. The leaves turn from green to yellow, red, orange, or purple, during spring.