Sassafras Tree Identification, Look-Alikes, and More

Whether you’re a novice or an expert forager, chances are you have access to sassafras nearby; it may even be growing on your property…

However, despite how common sassafras is, it is often overlooked as a target for foraging; after all, most people forage plants, not trees! However, this easily identifiable tree is a really useful and free resource, so it is worth getting familiar with. Here is everything you need to know about foraging sassafras.

What is Sassafras, Anyway?

Sassafras is not just a single plant; rather, sassafras is an entire genus of plants! Sassafras is a type of tree that is part of the Lauraceae family, which are commonly referred to as laurels.

Foraging is more than just identifying plants to harvest. Foraging is about learning and getting to know the plants, their families, and what makes them unique and identifiable in nature.

Sassafras is a special tree because of its varieties, one of which is extinct. So, going forward in this article, learn more about each kind of sassafras before harvesting, and be mindful in your foraging.

How to Identify Sassafras

As mentioned before, sassafras is one of over 2,000 plants in the Lauraceae family and is native to both eastern North America and eastern Asia. What makes the laurel family, including the sassafras varieties, most notable is the aromatic properties.

Sassafras has a unique, citrus-like scent when the inner portions of any parts are crushed or exposed. The varieties discussed in this article will include the sassafras albidum, sassafras tzumu, sassafras randaiense, and sassafras Hesperia.

All of these varieties are deciduous trees. Sassafras albidum and Hesperia are dioecious, meaning they have distinctive reproductive systems and that both varieties require biparental reproduction.

Sassafras albidum

Commonly found in the woodlands and fields, this deciduous tree is aromatic and is occasionally referred to as the white sassafras tree.

The best areas to find this variety of sassafras include southern Maine, southern Ontario Canada, west to Iowa, south and central Florida, and eastern Texas. This variety is quick to reach its mature size of, at its best, 66 feet.

The trunk often reaches 24 inches in width. However, in lower-quality growing areas, this tree may only reach a shrub size of only a couple of feet. You will notice the flowers begin to sprout in the early spring, which start out as yellow or green clusters. This variety prefers more acidic, sandy soils to support its large taproot.

This tree, when mature, produces dark reddish-brown bark that is deeply furrowed. From the trunk, main branches grow, which then produce multiple slender bifurcating branches that decrease in strength and size.

The leaves alternate, reaching a maximum length of six inches and four inches in width. These leaves will grow in three different patterns: three-lobed, unlobed, and two-lobed. In rare cases, there will be more than three lobes on any given leaf.

When autumn approaches, the leaves will change to different shades of yellow with red edges. The flowers found on the tree have six petals per flower and are typically yellow.

Within the first year, this tree should mature by August, which can be indicated by the fruit and seed production. The fruit is red and connected to a stem of flowers, with a flesh that covers the seed within the fruit. Seeds for reproduction often do not start to grow until ten or so years have passed, as the tree can age up to 50 years, with seed production every one to two years.

When fully mature and well-aged, the sassafras albidum tree can produce anywhere between 8,000 to over 13,000 seeds every one to two years, which attract birds and small mammals and increase the species’ longevity.

Sassafras randaiense

Unlike the sassafras albidum, which is not concerned in terms of extinction risk, the sassafras randaiense variety is a threatened variety, due to habitat loss. This variety is a remnant species that is found in Taiwan.

The tree reaches a sizable height, being considered a medium-sized tree. The width of the tree is that of comparable proportion to the sassafras albidum variety. The leaves also alternate, with a diamond-like shape, that reaches up to five inches in length and nearly two inches in width.

Overall, the leaves on this variety are often not lobed. However, there have been a few selected trees from this variety to have leaves similar to the sassafras albidum and Hesperia leaves, with either two or three lobes per leaf. The flowers reach about an inch in length and are also yellow.

The fruit that grows on the tree is attached to smaller branches to the larger, connecting branches, and are small in size, reaching one-fourth of an inch. The flowers can often be spotted in their beginning stages as early as February, and the fruit in its maturing phase by October.

Sassafras tzumu

This variety of sassafras is commonly identified in China, specifically in the regions of Anhui, Fuijian, Guangxi, Guangdong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Zhejiang.

The tree can be spotted in both thin or dense forests and can reach one of the tallest heights compared to the other varieties of about 115 feet tall. The leaves are alternate, and grow in as a grayish-green color. The leaves can grow to be around seven inches in length and nearly four inches in width.

This variety contains a naturally high amount of oil, making it incredibly valuable; however, the tzumu variety is also higher on the endangered plant species list and should not be foraged.

Sassafras Hesperia

This variety is the extinct variety of sassafras. While extinct, for the sake of identification and process of elimination, take a moment and continue reading to learn more about the Hesperia variety.

What evidence remains of this variety stems from fossilized leaves, found in deposits in the state of Washington in the United States. The fossils indicate that the tree, dated to have lived during the Eocene period, had three-lobed leaves. The sample shows that the leaves also grow to be around five inches in length.

It is also possible that this variety of sassafras was evergreen. This is a unique feature since all the remaining sassafras varieties lose their leaves each year with the changing seasons.

What Trees are Mistaken for Sassafras?

The sweetgum tree is occasionally mistaken for sassafras because the leaves of the sweetgum tree can resemble sassafras leaves. However, sweetgum leaves are more uniform and smaller than sassafras leaves, and the bark of the sweetgum is entirely different from that of sassafras.

The leaves of a red mulberry tree are also markedly similar to those of sassafras, which can cause problems for people who aren’t trained to identify them. However, red mulberry trees almost always have fruit on them, while sassafras trees do not.

Mulberries are edible, and the fruit is a delicious snack, a great addition to many desserts, and can also be used to make jams or fruit wines.

Black locusts share some traits with sassafras, such as pinnate compound leaves and small flowers. However, black locust trees have much larger, pointier leaves than sassafras; and the bark of the black locust is much rougher and deeply ridged. Black locust would also make a terrible tea, as its leaves and twigs are toxic.

Pests and Diseases

Since these varieties are part of the laurel family, they are susceptible to laurel wilt.

Laurel wilt is a common disease in this genus and is quite damaging to the plants. Laurel wilt is often triggered by the flying ambrosia beetle, known as Xyleborus glabratus.

The ambrosia beetle is native to Asia but can also be found affecting North American sassafras as well. This beetle is known to carry and infect the tree with the fungal pathogen that causes the tree to discolor, and the leaves to droop.

Eventually, the branches on the tree will be left bare, but should the tree survive, will only experience stunted foliage growth in the following year. However, once the beetles begin to attack a tree, their number will only increase, leading to boreholes left in the trunk. Such wounds open the tree up for further infestation of other types of disease.

The most certain way of identifying laurel wilt is through lab testing; however, the best way to stop laurel wilt is to prevent it. This is as simple as not exposing sassafras trees to lumber, mulch, or other particulates that might have come in contact with laurel wilt. Being the extinction risk of the species, this precautionary step is especially crucial.

Like any plant, these trees may experience infestations of bugs and disease, but these do not generally cause significant harm or damage to the trees. As with any gardening, if you choose to grow one of these trees yourself, maintenance is key in keeping the plant healthy.

The most common pests that you might encounter when foraging or growing a sassafras tree include these 3 types of insects:

  • root borers
  • leaf feeders
  • and suckers.

In the United States, stretching along the entire east coast, you should expect to see evidence of damage resulting from wood-boring weevils, gypsy moths, loopers, and Japanese beetles.

Wood-boring weevils will leave tunnel holes in the tree trunk, along with excrement that separates weevil holes from woodpecker or termite holes. Due to the physical damage dealt by these wood borers, the tree might begin to have limbs die off and bark begin to crack.

Gypsy moths are known to lead to the defoliation of sassafras trees when they transition from caterpillars into their flying moth form. These moths will lay eggs, which are relatively easy to identify in both winter and early spring, as they are most often attached to the bark of the tree.

Loopers often begin their cycle in the weeds surrounding plants and then target the leaves on those plants. Loopers leave tiny marks on the foliage of plants, which makes it important to be vigilant in your observation of sassafras trees.

Japanese beetles are one of the most noticeable pests in most gardens, as they are incredibly common and feed on over 300 plants. Japanese beetles are black, with a distinctive bronze and metallic green outer shell. These beetles will cause leaves to decay, leaving many holes and exposed areas in the foliage.

Prevention is key, in that the first step in stopping insect infestations is to not introduce opportunities for insect infestations. This can be easily done by not exposing sassafras trees to lumber and other plant materials, garbage, or any although outdoor materials that might carry larvae or materials that could attract pests.

However, in the case of infestation, there are other options, such as natural removal, chemical treatments, or involving proper authorities to remove the pests.

As with most trees, the exception only being a few across the globe, sassafras is not fire or flame resistant. Sassafras trees also do not survive well when constantly in shade, so if and when planting your own sassafras tree, be sure to plant the seeds in areas that will receive most or full sun exposure throughout its lifetime.

Parts to Harvest

What parts you should harvest depend on what you want to use sassafras for. For tea and external uses, the best part to harvest is the root. With sassafras varieties, if possible, only cut off what you need, as to avoid damaging the entire plant.

Sassafras Roots

The best time to harvest the root is in the colder month of February when the tree is essentially laying dormant.

Sassafras Leaves

The leaves of the sassafras tree can be harvested and dried, then ground up, to make the file for gumbo.

If you are interested in Creole cuisine and cannot afford to take a trip to Louisiana (or simply unable to), then making your own file seasoning is a preferred option, rather than purchasing premade file, which is often mixed with filler seasonings, such as oregano and other common flavorful herbs.

Again, only take what you will feasibly use, between five and ten fresh, healthy leaves…

Bundle the leaves together and allow to dry, away from direct light and excessive heat. Once the leaves have fully dried, you can choose to either grind the leaves by hand with a mortar and pestle or opt for a faster method by using a coffee or spice grinder. Once ground up, sift the blended leaves through a fine sieve and store the finished powder in an air-tight container.

The main purpose of this simple use is to thicken the traditional Creole dish just before dishing the food out to serve. If purchased premade, you might notice that the natural oil content has been removed, due to being noted as a chemical by FDA standards.

Harvesting Sassafras Twigs

Like the leaves and roots, sassafras twigs have a strong scent and flavor when broken and crushed. This not only makes them easy to identify but also makes them incredibly valuable in the kitchen.

The twigs are also eaten by wildlife like whitetail deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, and porcupines in the winter, so only take what you plan to eat and leave the rest.

Uses for Sassafras

Sassafras has been used in many common ways, including medicinally, culinary, and aromatic purposes. These uses are in combination of sassafras being an important food found in the wild for animals.

Historically, as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, sassafras has been collected and used as lumber for building furniture, including pots, buckets, and barrels for cooperage, and boats.

Europe and China have been noted to have been the primary users of sassafras, shortly following the United States. The bark was harvested to brew tea and is still used in tea today.

The leaves have been known to be used to thicken soups. Because of sassafras’ natural citrus scent, oil has been produced from the inner portions of the trees and used both in soaps and in perfumes.

Aside from all the products that can be made from this tree, sassafras is planted in areas that lack soil nutrition, by replenishing the oils in soil found in older fields, commonly used for this purpose in Illinois and Indiana.

All parts of sassafras can be harvested and used, including bark, leaves, stems, wood, flowers, fruit, and roots. The most well-known use today, as you might be able to guess or already know, is in Creole cuisine, found in Louisiana. In Creole dishes, sassafras is found in filé powder, which is used in the making of gumbo.

Powder made from ground sassafras leaves and bark is commonly found in Creole cuisine overall. Sassafras was also used in the making of root beer but was banned after discovering that sassafras oil that contained large doses of safrole had the potential of leading to liver damage.

Sassafras tea was also banned in 1977, but the ban was later rescinded in 1994. The oil, however, was and is commonly used as a pest deterrent through oil diffusion, or steam.

Since sassafras naturally is aromatic, the scent of the citrus-like concentrated oil deters pests, like mosquitoes. The oil has also been used as additional flavor to homemade liquors, as a way to cover the strong odor.

Is it Legal to Forage for Sassafras?

Something that’s interesting about the sassafras tree is that, despite the fact that it is a primary ingredient in traditional root beer and a very common plant in the eastern United States, it is illegal to sell it.

Technically, it’s not illegal to sell sassafras, but it’s illegal to sell its active compound, safrole.

With that said, foraging for sassafras and having it in your possession is not illegal. It is simply illegal to sell safrole. You cannot sell any products considered food or beverages that contain sassafras or safrole, including teas, herbal products, extracts, or oils.

Final Thoughts

Given the history of the sassafras genus, it is crucial to take into consideration the longevity of a species when foraging.

Although having been extinct long beyond our years, the sassafras Hesperia is a reminder of the laws of nature and our potential effects on the natural order of life. With proper precautions taken, sassafras can be harvested and used safely.

The uses for sassafras, both current and historical, are yet another example of how nature helps us to connect with the world we live in, and how best to experience the ecosystems we are involved in. So, get to know more about sassafras, and start putting it to work in your homestead’s kitchen today.

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