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Sassafras Tree

(Sassafras albidum)

Height: 40 to 60 feet

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous  

Lifespan: 30 years on dry sites; up to 100 in wet areas

Fall Foliage: Brilliant orange; sometimes bright red

Range: The eastern United States to Texas in the west and north to Maine in the east  

Typical Habitat: Moderately damp forests, often near canopy gaps   

sassafras tree leaf

The Sassafras Tree: A Rapid Colonizer   

Sassafras trees can and do spread via seed, but they’re also effective colonizers, who can form large colonies comprised of many stems. This tendency likely helps it to survive in the forest gaps that it often prefers.

Sassafras trees have been used by humans for a variety of reasons throughout the centuries, but they’re actually prohibited in some places now, due to their tendency to spread vegetatively and take over entire areas.

Sassafras Tree Identification: Tips & Tricks

The sassafras is perhaps most noteworthy for its tendency to produce three different leaf shapes – often on the same branch. As you can see in the photos above, some of the leaves are unlobed, while others are bilobed, and still others are tri-lobed.

And aside from red mulberry trees (Morus rubra) and some oaks (Quercus spp.), you won’t encounter many other native trees that do so. Accordingly, you can use the presence of several different leaf shapes as a strong clue that you’re looking at a mulberry.

In the late summer, you can also easily identify this tree by noting the distinctive fruit (though this won’t help with male trees). The drupes themselves are black to dark blue, while they’re attached to the tree via a bright red cup and pedicel.

The Sassafras Tree: Additional Information

Care to learn more about this interesting species? Check out these great sassafras tree resources:

  • Missouri Botanical Garden: General overview of the species, including scads of high-quality (and beautiful) photographs.   
  • U.S. Forest Service: A comprehensive guide to the species, complete with a considerable amount of semi-technical information.
  • North Carolina State Extension: A general overview, as well as an easy-to-reference table, full of the answers to common questions about the species.

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2 Responses

  1. I planted a bare root dormant sassafras tree in early may. When it arrived I immediately put in in water and the next day planted it. I used sterile garden topsoil. I have kept it watered but not soaking it. Some of the branches have died back and it never leafed out. It is now August and the trunk is as green as the day I planted it. I have been told that these trees may remain dormant all summer and leaf out the next spring. Any truth to this?

    1. Hey there, John.
      It is certainly possible that your little sassafras will spring (heh) back to life after winter — only time will tell.
      Generally speaking, sassafras trees can be finicky, but we’d certainly remain hopeful.
      Let us know how it goes!

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