February 21, 2010

Sassafras Tree

Sassafras albidum
Sassafras.  It isn't called anything else, unless you ask the children: to them it's a "mitten tree" because of the bilobed leaves, so distinctive that any grade schooler can identify this tree.  No common names, no cultivars, just the one fizzy, sibilant, Indian sounding name: Sassafras.

Although it sounds vaguely Algonquian, it's not a native word, but likely the Spanish corruption of the Latin name saxifrage.  I don't care, I prefer to think the Wampanoags had a name for it, and Massasoit told the Pilgrims "this tree, this is a sassafras.  We'll show you how we make root beer".


When I began planting trees I knew I had to have one, or rather a grove of them.  I'm not sure why.  The name.  The fiery orange fall color.  Because it's native, all over our Connecticut woods, attracting Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies.  Root beer was once made from the roots, until it was banned by the FDA.  (Is it significant that the two most important medicinal exports from the New World back to Europe in the 1600s were tobacco and sassafras?  Both turned out to be carcinogens.  I'm just saying.)   Fil-e powder for gumbo is ground up from the leaves .  Dominique Browning wrote about having them in her yard.  Bill Cullina's pictures dazzle.

Maybe it was the challenge.  Sassafras grows wild, but it doesn't like to grow tamed.  You can't transplant a big one, and you can't separate a sucker from the parent tree in the woods and have it live.  Sassafras have tap roots, and even when young they're just funny about being planted anywhere they didn't pick.  Left to their own devices, they easily sucker, they spread like crazy, they're the pioneers that reclaim abandoned fields.  Planted in my garden, they sulk and pull in their roots.

I have planted 1 gallon container mail order saplings (many), bare root sprigs (quite a few) and even some 5 gallon spindly container grown whips (two).   Survival rate: about zilch, but not quite.  I've been determined, and out of my many, many attempts, I now have 5 growing in the weeds in the meadow behind our yard, soon to be a woodland grove.  And they're growing fast.  I trim off the suckers that are already forming on these surviving baby plants so they will be single trunk large trees, not multi stemmed shrubs.

I'm waiting for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies to show up; sassafras is a host plant for them!  So far mine attract a lot of Japanese beetles. 

They're not really yard trees -- a little coarse in habit up close, and the suckering needs to be attended to all the time.  But as I watched my little grove in the meadow take shape, reach heights of about 5 feet in two summers, and turn a twinkly tangerine in fall, I couldn't resist, and I put one survivor at the back edge of our lawn.

The picture at the top of this post is my friend Becky's tree rescued from brambles when it was chest high 10 years ago.  Mine is a little 10 inch high rag doll poking out of the mulch.  Did you ever see such a cute tree?

There's an ancient sassafras on the Institute of Living campus in Hartford, and it's immense, over 40 feet tall with chunky furrowed bark.  They do grow like that, but mostly we see the little shrubby multi stemmed young trees in the wild, as they sucker at the edge of the forest, lighting up the deeper woods in autumn.  The mitten shapes are noticeable on young trees, but by the time they are tall shade trees the lobed thumbs are gone and the leaves are primarily oval.

Another reason I love the sassafras: they make their young wear mittens!

Sassafras albidum
in University of Connecticut plant files
in Mobot's database










picture from Missouri Botanical Garden plant file

12 comments:

  1. That's funny, I have to have Sassafras too. I love Sassafras, and you're right, they are so hard to get and then get going! I have a plant from a one gallon pot that's still about a foot high after 2 years, and I hope it makes it. This is probably the 6th one that I've put into the ground. I was so happy to see that we still have one wild Sassafras growing near the edge of the woods. I was afraid it was taken down when the house was moved.

    Congratulations on your 5 young Sassafras. They're wonderful trees, and they have such marvelous fall color.

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  2. Sweet bay, I'm glad to hear from another fanatic about planting sassafras. I hope your 6th one makes it! Once they decide to settle in, they grow easily, and pretty quickly, but it's such a struggle at first.

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  3. I've had to remove some big old trees in the past year - now I know what to try for replacements!

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  4. Cyndy: you'll need to be patient... you can only transplant very small sassafras, so they won't really replace big old trees for quite a while!

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  5. Well, you have convinced me these are utterly charming trees. Mittens for their young - awww!

    Best of luck with yours!

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  6. Very interesting post. I didn't know about File powder, nor did I know about them being host plants for swallowtails. I love sassafras tea, but only drink it rarely now. I wish you luck with your grove and the little one in your yard. When fall comes and they show their brilliant orange colors you will be gald you went to all the effort.

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  7. Garden Ms. S and Beckie: thanks for your good wishes with my little trees--- I'm hoping patience and determination will be rewarded!

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  8. We have more than enough sassafras in our yard. I like it, especially in fall but when it is planted where you don't want it it can be hard to remove. The smell of sassafras is very fragrant after being mowed! They are a good tarp crop like you said for Japanese beetles. The beetles hardly bother anything else and stick to the sassafras. Good post!

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  9. Dave: thanks for visiting. Getting rid of mature sassafras where you don't want it is a problem, I know... just hope I've got mine planted in the right places!

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  10. Your little sassafras tree is very cute. I hope it does well! We have some of these growing in the woods near our home, and the fall color is beautiful A grove of these would be quite special.

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  11. Thanks, debsgarden. I am anxious to see my grove fill in and take shape!

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  12. i tried to get a sapling from an old childhood home and it withered by the end of the day. i figured we didn't get enough root. the second time, i had to just cut a portion of the root. it still withered and died. i still don't know how to get one...the roots seem to span the entire yard!

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