sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras variifolium (Salisb.) K. & Ze.
Sassafras sassafras (L.) Karsten
Sassafras officinale (Nees. & Eberm.) S. triloba Raf.
Sassafras triloba var. mollis Raf.
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of sassafras is
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees. Some authorities consider red sassafras
(Sassafras albidum var. molle (Raf.) Fern.) a distinct variety; other authors
consider it synonymous with Sassafras abbidum.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Sassafras is a native,
deciduous, aromatic tree or large shrub, with a flattened, oblong crown.
On the best sites, height ranges up to 98 feet (30 m). In the northern parts
of its range, sassafras tends to be shrubby, especially on dry, sandy sites,
and reaches a maximum of 40 feet (12 m) . The bark of older stems is
deeply furrowed, or irregularly broken into broad, flat ridges. The variety
of leaf shapes to be found on one individual is a distinctive trait of the
species. Leaves can be entire, one-lobed, or two-lobed. The fruit is a
drupe. The root system is shallow, with prominent lateral roots. Root
depth ranges from 6 to 20 inches (15-50 cm).
REGENERATION PROCESSES: Sassafras is sexually mature by 10
years of age, and best seed production occurs between 25 and 50 years of
age. Good seed crops are produced every 1 to 2 years. Seeds are dispersed
by birds, water, and small mammals. Sassafras seeds are usually dormant
until spring, but some germination occurs in the fall immediately following
dispersal. Stratification in sand for 30 days at 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 deg
C) breaks the natural dormancy. Average germination rate is around 85
percent. Since sassafras seeds are relatively large, initial establishment is
not highly dependent on available soil nutrients. Other factors appear to
play a greater role. Seedling establishment occurred with greater ground
cover, less light, or deeper litter than other microsites. Sassafras seeds
were found in seed banks under red pine (Pinus resinosa), eastern white
pine (Pinus strobus), and Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) stands. Sassafras
seedling reproduction is usually sparse and erratic in wooded areas. In these
areas, reproduction is usually vegetative. Asexual reproduction: Sassafras
forms dense thickets of root sprouts, and young trees sprout from the stump.
After clearcutting in upland hardwood stands (Indiana), 86.5 percent of
sassafras regeneration was of seedling or seedling sprout origin; the
remainder was of stump sprout origin.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Sassafras occurs on nearly all soil types
within its range, but is best developed on moist, well-drained sandy loams
in open woodlands. It is intolerant of poorly drained soils. Sassafras occurs
along fence rows and on dry ridges and upper slopes, particularly following
fire. Sassafras occurs at elevations ranging from Mississippi River bottom-
lands up to 4,000 feet (1,220 m) in the southern Appalachian Mountains,
occasionally up to 4,900 feet (1,500 m).
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: Sassafras is a frequent pioneer in old fields,
and is a member of seral stands in the Southeast. In Virginia, sassafras
persists to mid-successional stages with black locust, Virginia pine, pitch
pine, eastern white pine, scarlet oak, blackjack oak, and post oak. It also
occurs in the canopy of old-growth forests in Illinois and Michigan. The
persistence of sassafras into later climax stands may be a result of gap
capture; in an old- growth forest in Massachusetts, older sassafras trees
appear to be associated with hurricane and/or windthrow gaps. There was
no evidence of fire disturbance in this forest. Human activities and
disturbance can foster sassafras establishment in old-growth stands.
The relatively high abundance of sassafras under Virginia pine stands is
associated with a greater frequency of tree-fall gaps under Virginia pine
than under red pine or eastern white pine. A detailed study of age structure
in mixed forests in Virginia reveals another role for sassafras. In 45- to
80-year-old mixed hardwoods and mixed pine stands, sassafras seedlings
and saplings occur in large numbers. They rarely survive more than 30
years except on moist sites. On relatively dry sites, sassafras does not
survive long enough to occupy upper canopy positions. But since sassafras
sprouts prolifically, there is a constant turnover of sassafras stems; older
stems die back and are replaced by new ramets. Sassafras in the understory
produces fruit under these conditions. In these stands, sassafras is
apparently functioning as a dominant shrub. Sassafras exhibits a positive
response to overstory removal; overstory defoliation by gypsy moths
results in an increase in the number of sassafras stems. The competitive
success of sassafras in pioneer communities may be related to the presence
of terpenoid allelopathic substances in sassafras leaves . These substance
affect, among other species, American elm (Ulmus americana) and box
elder (Acer negundo). The susceptibility of these species appears to be
related to their habit of germination immediately following dispersal. The
toxic terpenes are washed off of summer leaves and are less concentrated
in winter and spring when no fresh leaves are present.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: Depending upon latitude, sassafras
flowers from March to May, and fruits ripen from June to September.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Sassafras occurs from southwestern
Maine west to extreme southern Ontario and central Michigan; southwest
to Illinois, Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas; and east to
central Florida. It is extinct in southeastern Wisconsin, but its range is
extending into northern Illinois.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Tree specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES: The sassafras-
persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) cover type is a successional type
common on abandoned farmlands throughout its range. Sassafras is a
common component of the bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) type, which is a
scrub type on dry sites along the Coastal Plain. In dry pine-oak forests,
sassafras sprouts prolifically and is a shrub-layer dominant. It achieves
short-term dominance by producing extensive thickets where few other
woody plants can establish. In the northern parts of its range, sassafras
occurs in the understory of open stands of aspen (Populus spp.) and in
northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) stands.
Common tree associates of sassafras not previously mentioned include
sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida),
elms (Ulmus spp.), hickories (Carya spp.), and American beech (Fagus
grandifolia). Minor associates include American hornbeam (Carpinus
caroliniana), eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and pawpaw
(Asimina triloba). On poor sites, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains,
sassafras is frequently associated with black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia),
and sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum). In old fields with deep soils,
sassafras commonly grows with elms, ashes (Fraxinus spp.), sugar
maple (Acer saccharum), yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and
IMPORTANCE AND USES: Sassafras leaves and twigs are consumed
by white-tailed deer in both summer and winter. In some areas it is an
important deer food. Sassafras leaf browsers include woodchucks, marsh
rabbits, and black bears. Rabbits eat sassafras bark in winter. Beavers
will cut sassafras stems. Sassafras fruits are eaten by many species of birds
including northern bobwhites, eastern kingbirds, great crested flycatchers,
phoebes, wild turkeys, catbirds, flickers, pileated woodpeckers, downy
woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, and mockingbirds. Some small mammals
also consume sassafras fruits.
The nutritional value of sassafras winter twigs is fair. Sassafras fruits are
high in energy value.
Sassafras is used for restoring depleted soils in old fields. Sassafras occurs
on sites that have been largely denuded of other vegetation by the
combination of frequent fire and toxic emissions from zinc smelters.
Sassafras persistence on these sites is attributed to root sprouting;
seedling reproduction is severely curtailed by the high level of toxins in
Sassafras wood is soft, brittle, light, and has limited commercial value.
It is durable, however, and is used for cooperage, buckets, fenceposts,
rails, cabinets, interior finish, and furniture. Its value for firewood is good.
Because of its durability, sassafras was used for dugout canoes by Native
Sassafras oil is extracted from the root bark for use by the perfume
industry, primarily for scenting soaps. It is also used as a flavoring agent
and an antiseptic. Large doses of the oil may be narcotic. Root bark is
also used to make tea, which in weak infusions is a pleasant beverage,
but induces sweating in strong infusions. The leaves can be used to flavor
and thicken soups. The mucilaginous pith of the root is used in preparation
to soothe eye irritations.
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