Around the Island

Tree of the Month: Sassafras

Latin Name: Sassafras albidum

Locations: Common in Island woods and woodland edges, sassafras is easy to identify by its two-lobed (like a mitten), three-lobed, or unlobed leaves. Some trees have leaves with all three shapes.

Look for individual specimens along Cobbetts Lane after passing the fire house and a prominent grove on Ram Island Road after turning left from Cobbetts.

Tree stats: Native to North America and related to avocado and cinnamon, sassafras ranges in the east from Maine to central Florida and west to Kansas and Texas.

It grows up to 60 feet high and 40 feet wide. Sassafras is a clonal species, meaning it can generate new trees via its roots, potentially creating large colonies. Pollinated yellow flowers in the spring become small blue berries atop a red stalk like a golf ball on a tee.

In the fall, the leaves turn dazzling shades of orange, red and yellow. The leaves, branches, bark and roots have an aromatic fragrance strong enough that it’s purported that Columbus smelled sassafras as he approached land.

A prized tree: Native American tribes valued different parts of sassafras to treat wounds and various illnesses. The dried and pounded leaves have long been used as a gumbo thickening agent called filé.

When the Spanish, French and British arrived in America, the tree quickly became an important export as wood for building and medicine to cure pretty much everything, including syphilis. (It didn’t.) Sassafras was one of the ingredients in the friendly-sounding Godfrey’s Cordial, an 18th-century opiate given to restless infants. Unsurprisingly, a number of children didn’t survive the treatment.

In more modern times, safrole, the oil derived from sassafras, was used to manufacture commercial root beer until 1960, when the FDA determined that the substance was a carcinogen. Health risks aside, I fondly recall the delectable, safrole-laden root beer floats of my childhood.

A neglected beauty: Because of its suckering habit, sassafras is rarely planted in home landscapes. Too bad, because it’s a charismatic tree for shade or sun.

The trees along Cobbetts existed in vine-covered obscurity until they were uncovered and carefully pruned and shaped by arborist and designer Kevin McCafferty. Landscape architect David Kamp cultivated a group of inherited sassafras on his former property by limbing them up and underplanting with hay-scented ferns and other groundcovers.

The effect was soft and magical.

Standing tall — and sweet. (Credit: Tim Purtell)