By Jeanne Henderson, interpretive naturalist
A trio of leaf shapes make this tree unique
There’s so much to like about a sassafras tree! From its uniquely shaped leaves to its spectacular autumn colors, this tree stands at the top of my favorites list.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) grows three different shaped leaves that I describe as egg-shaped, mitten-shaped and ghost-shaped. All three can be found on each tree, though the egg shape is more abundant. It is fun to search for all three! Looking at the leafless branches in late fall or winter, you notice the curvy branches similar to the letter S. Compare these branches to a maple tree whose straight branches grow out from the trunk horizontal or at acute angles.
One of the best characteristics of sassafras is the pleasant aroma in its branches, leaves, fruits and roots. Break any of these to smell the sweet, fruity scent. The roots were home brewed to make root beer in the past, a favorite summer drink. The dried and ground leaves are used as a thickener and flavoring in Louisiana Creole gumbo.
In May, as young leaves open, the male and female flowers appear on separate plants (dioecious) and are greenish yellow with six petals and abundant nectar attracting insect pollinators.
In the fall, leaves turn pink, red or blazing orange, creating a picturesque scene along woodland edges. By now, the flowers have turned into small dark blue fruits about one centimeter long, supported on a red base attached to a red stem, lending more color to the tree. Birds and chipmunks spread the seeds after eating the fruits, sprouting into seedlings in the understory. They gradually become intolerant of shade until a weather disturbance creates openings into which they readily move and develop fast into mature trees 30 – 60 feet tall.
Sassafras can be started from seeds or root cuttings in soil with a pH of neutral to slightly acidic.
Where can you find sassafras? Three forest types in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula host sassafras in their communities. Mesic deciduous forests dominated by beech and maple, contain rich humus soil, which supports a great diversity of species. Dry-mesic mixed hardwood forests contain sandy loam with hilly terrain, dominated by oaks and hickory. Dry deciduous forests with well-drained sandy loam considered infertile, supports a lower diversity of trees, including sassafras.
- Another aromatic plant appropriately named is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Its dark gray stems with arching branches spread into a wide crown. The elliptical light-green leaves, widest at the middle, give off a pleasant citronella-like odor when crushed.
- In May, after willows begin blooming, the spicebush flowers appear on bare twigs before the leaves open. The tight clusters of yellow male and female flowers borne on separate plants give off a subtle lemony fragrance.
- Spicebush flowers attract ladybird beetles, bee flies, miner bees and leafcutter bees to its pollen and nectar.
- Thriving under the canopy of taller deciduous trees, spicebush grows along the edge of rivers, streams or ponds in slightly acidic soil with high organic matter. New shoots grow from its spreading root system.
- In mid-summer, you may find leaves rolled shut, and when you gently open them, find a caterpillar sleeping inside. The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar is bright green with two large black and yellow spots on its back when mature. Spicebush and sassafras are the host plants for this lovely butterfly, which has two generations per year.
- In fall, the leaves turn golden, and the pollinated flowers change into red ripe fruits. Also, pleasingly aromatic when crushed, the fruits are welcome foods for wood thrush and very, two birds that live in deep woods.