The Sassafras albidum, or more commonly known as just Sassafras, is a central Michigan Native who has wonderful pros, however, it can end up being a hassle more than a beauty.
An admiring feature of the Sassafras is its colorful display in the autumn. The foliage turns from green to yellow, deep orange, and in some cases purple. The leaves come in a few different shapes. The leaf shapes can have 3 lobes, or it can look like the friendly state of Michigan with its left and right hand mittens. Some say it looks like a spoon, a fork, and a mitten.
Sassafras can grow to a height of 30-60 feet tall and its canopy can spread as wide as 40 feet. It does prefer full sun to grow in. If found in the forest, it is often at the top of the canopy, as it is phototropic. Sassafrases require a moist, but well-drained, acidic soil. Sometimes they can be drought tolerant, however this is rare.
The Sassafras smells good. In the early spring it blooms yellow clusters of flowers. You can often remove shoots to make the tree grow in a single-trunk, however if you leave the shoots, the tree can form a more shrub shape, with multiple trunks. The tree has small dark blue berries in the fall which happens to be popular among birds, deer, turkey, and more.
So why is the longevity of Sassafras a problem in Michigan?
- They can’t tolerate shade. We are significantly further from the equator and receive several less hours of daylight, reducing their chances of success.
- The growth rate is significantly slower in Michigan, at the top of its native range. They are short and more shrub-like. And their mature size may only reach 15 inches in diameter at breast height.
- The more species that are present, overtopping the Sassafras, the less chance it has for survival. In other words, when competition is high, survival is low.
- Fire damage. We are often susceptible to forest fires. Any fire damage at all will kill reproduction and create wounds for other pathogens.
- Diseases like blight, leaf spot, canker, and wood-rot fungi can severely injure the Sassafras.
- Pests such as root borers, leaf feeders, and sucking insects can affect the species, however it is unlikely to cause damage unless there is an outbreak in the area. The gypsy moth happens to be one of the leaf feeder insects that attack the Sassafras, which has become pretty invasive in West Michigan in the last few years. Loopers are also common in Grand Rapids and can cause damage. Wood-boring weevils can kill trees up to just about the size that they will reach in our range. Japanese beetles are also notorious for feeding on Sassafras.
- They like most, well-drained, and acidic soils with pH’s of 6-7. The common Michigan soil pH ranges from 4 to 9. So it can be too acidic or too alkaline, depending on the area, preventing the plant from obtaining its nutrients.
Interesting Fun Facts
- Using Sassafras in the restoration of soil in fields is beneficial.
- Sassafras is used in the scent of soaps or perfume. Its smells similar to cinnamon.
- It can be used as an antiseptic.
- In large doses, it is considered a narcotic due to the safrole chemical compound. This oil has been known to cause liver cancer in animals, and miscarriages in humans. It is a Controlled Substance by the DEA, as it is used to make illegal drugs. It is actually illegal to dig or cut the plant in some areas, if the intended use is of the oil for consumption, and is controlled by the FDA.
- The Root bark is an ingredient in making root beer, even though, it is actually a tea since it comes from a tree. The process does include removing the safrole oil, so that is is safe for consumption.
- Native Americans used it for dugout canoes.
- The leaves can thicken soups.
- When it was first discovered, it was believed to cure all, and its medical uses were wide.
How to Help Sassafras:
Test your soil. Remember that 6-7 is the best pH range for Sassafras success. Plant you Sassafras in old fields. Planting Sassafras next to dogwoods, sweet gums, elms, cedars, hickories, beeches, maples, poplars, and oaks is good for the tree. These plants have similar growing conditions and can help each other.
Signs to call it quits:
Sometimes, it is generally better to remove a tree than it is to try to save it. If you see signs that your Sassafras has a disease or a pest infestion, it may be a good choice to remove it before those pathogens spread to other trees. Further, Sassafras isn’t considered an invasive species, since it is native to our area, however, it often grows several saplings from the mother tree which can be problematic. It can be hard to control without cutting the saplings every year. And it may be a better option to remove the tree to eliminate the hassle. If you do remove a Sassafras, we recommend grinding the stump/roots to help reduce the chances of re-growth. Reach out to us if you are looking to remove a Sassafras!