Garden Talk

with Rebecca Jordi

Q: In your butterfly class you taught the sassafras tree was a good larval food source for some of the swallowtail butterflies. Can you tell me more about the tree?

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A:   The Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum: is a native tree to North America – anywhere from cold hardiness zones 5a – 9a.  It is deciduous, dropping its leaves when the cold weather appears.  It can grow to heights of 60 feet with a 25 – 40 foot spread. Therefore, it would need plenty of space. Historically, the bark and fragrant roots were used for medicinal purposes. According to a publication from Pennsylvania State University, Sassafras was used by Native Americans as a cure-all for a broad range of ailments. An oil extract from the root bark was used to treat diarrhea, nosebleeds, even heart troubles. European settlers and their colonial sponsors were so impressed by the healing powers of sassafras oils the sassafras roots were exported back to Europe in great quantities. In 1602, one ton of these roots sold for 336 pounds Sterling (about $25,000 in modern currency). Leaves were brewed into a medicinal tea and extracted oils were used to make perfume, candy, soap, and root beer. The University of Florida believes we should be planting sassafras for the outstanding display of fall leaf colors.  The multi-lobed leaves have a distinctive aroma when crushed.  Sassafras prefers well-drained, acidic soils and can be grown in most any type of light (full sun to partial shade).  It is highly drought tolerant once it is established.  Its ability to tolerate salt is unknown.  In spring, before the leaves appear, the tree produces yellow, lightly fragrant flowers followed by dark, blue colored fruits which ripen in the fall. These fruit provide an excellent source of food for birds and other wildlife. Although the male plants have showier blossoms, it is the female plants which produce the fruit. Both sexes must be planted to insure good fruit production. Sassafras frequently develops a multiple trunk due to sprouting at the base. Sprouts appear to originate from the root system forming a cluster of showy, grey fissured trunks growing from the soil. This characteristic has helped it invade and colonize old fields and other disturbed sites. Prune early in the life of the tree to form a single trunk suitable for urban landscape planting, or grow with multiple trunks for a dramatic specimen. Single-trunked trees are best-suited for street tree planting and other urban and suburban areas, and they usually maintain this good form without pruning.


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