My Apologies to the Sassafras Trees

Yesterday I commented on a post on Gardening Gone Wild written by Nan for the Garden Blogger Fall Color Project and said how some people consider the Sassafras to be a junk tree. Inadvertently I may have given the impression that I believe it is. The truth is that while it may not make my top ten tree list I do see some great qualities that make it an asset to the landscape. So today Mr. Sassafras I apologize for any perceived slight and offer you this post to dissuade others from considering you a tree of lesser quality.

First of all lets talk about the facts! The sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a deciduous tree that can grow between 40-50 feet tall but frequently remains shrub-like in poorer growing conditions. This member of the laurel family is very common in the Smoky Mountains (a great place for fall color!) and have a range that extends from Florida north to Michigan and westward to eastern Oklahoma and Texas. The flowers are dioecious like hollies which means male and female flowers are on separate plants. They have green-yellow flowers that will appear in late spring and produce a blueish drupe that mature in August and September. (see the USDA Forest Service for more info.) The leaves are interesting since they could be one of three different shapes. The form on the younger trees is more oval shaped while the older plants sport two (mitten shaped) and three lobes.

What do I like about them? If I were to name one attribute that could be their strongest feature it would be the fall color. The leaves turn a flame red color that rivals any other tree during the autumn leaf show. In time a stand of these trees can provide a good deal of shade. Of course the most well known fact about the sassafras tree is that the roots were once used to make root beer! Studies have shown that root beer made from sassafras really isn't healthy to imbibe which is why root beer is now made from other ingredients. Another interesting thing about this tree is the smell that emanates from the freshly cut leaves. When I first began mowing our yard I unknowingly ran over many little sassafras seedlings and I noticed a strong aroma of lemons. You can imagine what an interesting smell that was once it mixed with the wild onions that were growing everywhere!

Why don't some people like them? They spread like wildfire! They are hard to get rid of if you need to clear the area since the roots spread and dig in deep. I've tried removing some from a potential garden area and the saplings just come back. If you don't get all the root they will return! They seem to have a high rate of germination from seeds which when you add the fast rate of growth means that you end up with a lot of trees, very fast.

I'll leave you to decide whether it's a junk tree or not. I like them for their fall color but probably don't need the 50 or more saplings that are thriving on our slope. Anyone want a root beer tree?

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