Sassafras tree

Garden Clippings for Dec 31, 2022

The prettiest mile on the Howard Watson Nature Trail is the stretch between Blackwell and Telfer Roads.  Prettiest because it is the most heavily treed, and many or most houses are far enough away from the trail that they are hardly seen.

In the next few weeks, we’ll dig a little deeper into the variety of trees found in this section of the Howard Watson Nature Trail.  Last week we looked at Black Walnut, a tree we either love or loath.  This week we take a closer look at Sassafras, a tree most of us have heard of, but know nothing about.

Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidium) is not a common tree.  It is considered Carolinian and grows in scattered pockets through Southwestern Ontario.  Those with a sharp eye can find it here in Sarnia-Lambton, east along Lake Huron to Kitchener, and South to Chatham, Windsor, and near Lake Erie.  Sassafras becomes more abundant as you go south into USA.

The books say that Sassafras won’t be found East or North of Toronto, unless global warming is causing us to rewrite the books.

Sassafras is not a stately or majestic tree and unless you notice its leaves, you will walk by it a thousand times before recognizing it.  Bark is dark brown and somewhat fissured, meaning it has grooves throughout, resembling rivers.

Sassafras does not become a big tree, and grows taller than wide.  I don’t think I have ever seen one with a trunk diameter larger than 12 inches.  Its height can reach 20 metres.

Where you might find one Sassafras, you will likely find a cluster because it rarely grows solo.  Sometimes, Sassafras roots will send up a new shoot, which if left undisturbed, may eventually become a small tree to keep the larger tree company.

The distinguished feature of Sassafras are its leaves, which will be either one of 4 shapes.  Leaves are plain green, about 4 to 6 inches long, with a shape of a right-hand mitten, left-hand mitten, both-sided mitten, or no mitten at all.  In the bush, leaves are often so high up that the tree is not discovered until autumn when leaves fall to the ground.

Flowers of Sassafras are showy and yellow, but not plentiful, appearing in spring soon after leaves unfurl.  Once flowers fall, a small blue fruit is exposed, which is quickly eaten up by birds.

Sassafras would be a good backyard tree, but nurseries have not yet found a way to propagate, grow and transplant it successfully.  Sassafras has a fleshy taproot that does not cooperate with digging up or moving.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have Sassafras growing in the backyard would be smart to leave it alone.  Not because it is an endangered species, but because it is a novelty, particularly in SW Ontario.  If you were adventuresome and wanted live as days gone by, you might grind up the roots of Sassafras to make tea or root beer, but experts are now suggesting to say clear of making any sassafras concoctions.