Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees



CC = 2
CW = 3
MOC = 68

© DETenaglia

Family - Lauraceae

Habit - Trees to 20 m or higher, dioecious, often colonial from root suckers.

Stems - Twigs yellowish green to greenish brown (on older portions), glabrous or nearly so, producing a spicy aroma when broken or bruised. Winter buds sessile, ovoid or the lateral ones sometimes nearly globose, with a few overlapping scales. Bark coarsely and deeply furrowed, reddish brown to gray.

Sassafras_albidum_twig.jpg Twig.

© DETenaglia

Sassafras_albidum_bud.jpg Bud.

© DETenaglia

Leaves - Alternate, simple, entire, petiolate, often lobed. Petioles usually sparsely to moderately short-hairy. Leaf blades 3-12 cm long, variously all entire or with 1 or 2 large lobes, ovate to elliptic obovate in outline, long-tapered at the base, the blade or lobes angled or tapered to bluntly or sharply pointed tips; the exposed undersurface appearing strongly grayish and usually densely silky-hairy when young, the upper surface glabrous and often somewhat shiny at maturity, the undersurface pale and often somewhat glaucous at maturity, glabrous or sparsely to moderately short-hairy along the veins, the midvein with a pair of prominent, ascending branches from above the base (appearing 3-veined), the venation otherwise pinnate, with a network of fine veinlets between the secondary veins.

Sassafras_albidum_leaves.jpg Pressed leaves.

A single tree will almost always have leaves of all three basic shapes shown here present. This is a diagnostic feature of this species.

© DETenaglia

Inflorescences - Clusters of short racemes, these occasionally appearing umbellate, appearing terminal (but below the season's new leaves), produced as the leaves first begin to develop. Flowers short-stalked, the stalks elongating, becoming red and strongly bulbous-thickened toward the tip as the fruit matures.

Sassafras_albidum_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Tepals 3-4 mm long, slender, greenish yellow. Staminate flowers with 3 of the stamens having a pair of bulbous, orange nectaries at the base. Pistillate flowers with 6 staminodes, the ovary ovoid, the style elongate, expanded apically into an asymmetrical, sometimes slightly 2-lobed stigma.

Sassafras_albidum_staminate.jpg Staminate flowers.

© SRTurner

Sassafras_albidum_pistillate.jpg Pistillate flowers.

The central style is surrounded by six staminodes, which resemble stamens but do not produce pollen.

© SRTurner

Fruits - Dark blue drupes, appearing somewhat jointed to the tip of the expanded, red stalk, 7-10 mm long, ovoid to broadly ellipsoid, shiny, the stone 4-7 mm long, broadly ellipsoid, with the surface uniformly light to dark brown, with a pair of angled longitudinal ridges, otherwise appearing somewhat roughened or granular.

Sassafras_albidum_fruits.jpg Fruits.

© SRTurner

Sassafras_albidum_stone.jpg Fruit and stone.

© SRTurner

Sassafras_albidum_nectria.jpg Cankers on trunk.

Sassafras is one of many trees susceptible to a fungal infection, in this case probably an ascomycete in the Nectria or Neonectria genus. The infection causes these odd cankers with a "burst from within" appearance.

© SRTurner

Flowering - April - May.

Habitat - Forests, often along the margins, prairies, savannas, glades, bluffs, fence rows, fallow fields, roadsides, railroads.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - None.

Other info. - This common understory tree is found across the southeastern 2/3 of Missouri and the eastern half of the continental U.S. It is rare or absent to the north and west of Missouri. It is easily recognized by its furrowed bark and distinctive leaves, with nearly all trees producing leaves with 0, 1, and 2 lobes.

Sassafras is an aromatic species with a long history of human use, both for medicine and food. The fragrance of the crushed leaves has been likened to many different things, one of the most remarkable being "Froot Loops" breakfast cereal. The powder made from dried leaves, called "filé powder" is a staple ingredient in Creole cuisine, where it serves as both a thickener and flavoring for gumbos. The roots of the tree have been used to brew beverages, such as sassafras tea and root beer. The wood has been used for a variety of uses, ranging from ships and furniture to toothbrushes. Traditional medicinal uses are likewise highly diverse. Although sassafras is not particularly energy dense, a log of it on a fire will produce a pleasant crackling.

Most culinary usage of sassafras and its essential oil have been curtailed due to the presence of safrole. This substance has been linked to lesions, necrosis, and cancer of the liver, and it is also a precursor to a particular class of illicit hallucinogens. There is controversy over the health risks involved in consuming certain sassafras products, such as filé, as the content of safrole may be low. However, commercial use of untreated sassafras in beverages or food products is banned in the U.S.

Some authors have recognized varieties of sassafras based upon leaf pubescence, but these intergrade freely even within individual populations.

Photographs taken at the Whetstone Conservation Area, Callaway County, MO., 2-25-04, and in the Piney Creek Wilderness, Mark Twain National Forest, Barry County, MO., 4-3-04 (DETenaglia); also at Little Lost Creek Conservation Area, Warren County, MO, 04-23-2014, 4-8-2020, and 4-14-2021, and Babler State Park, St. Louis County, MO, 06-13-2016 (SRTurner).