In Bloom: Sassafrass

By Suzanne Wodek

Sassafras albidum is a native tree known for its brilliant display of autumn foliage and aromatic leaves. This tree is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees. It prefers moist, acidic soils but will tolerate dry, sandy soils in full sun or part shade. It is advised to plant it where you want it in your landscape when it is small since its large taproot makes transplanting established trees difficult.

In Bloom: Sassafrass

Sassafras albidum. Anne Holmes, artist

All parts of this tree have been used by humans, including leaves, stems, bark, roots, flowers, wood and fruit. Native Americans used the leaves of sassafras to treat wounds by rubbing them directly into a wound, and other parts of the plant for medicinal purposes such as treating acne, urinary disorders and high fevers. Dyes and flavorings were produced and the wood was used to make furniture and boats.

Sassafras is a wildlife food source. The fruits are eaten by Eastern Bluebirds, Red-eyed Vireos, wild turkeys, squirrels, black bears and rabbits, to name a few. It’s the larval host for the Imperial moth, Eacle impersialis, and the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio troilus.

Here’s the story I learned many years ago about how the sassafras tree got its three different leaf shapes: On a cold winter day, a man asked his wife to make something to keep his hands warm as he worked outside. She knitted him mittens without a thumb. They were warm, he said, but he wondered if she could knit something that would allow him to use his thumb. She knitted him a mitten with a thumb. When asked how the new pair worked, he asked her if she could knit a pair that would let him use his thumb and fingers. She knitted him a mitten with two thumbs. They laughed at this latest creation. She then knitted a pair of gloves that fit all of his fingers. He declared them perfect. She threw her three failed creations out the window. The next spring they noticed that a tree was growing outside the window where the mittens had landed. When they took a closer look, they noticed that the tree had three different kinds of leaves resembling the wife’s failed mitten creations. And that’s how the sassafras came to be.

Upcoming Events at the Botanical Gardens

Woody Plant Natural History Walk with Ron Lance
Saturday, October 9, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Meet at the Visitor Center. This two-hour guided walk will focus on the natural history of our native plants. Enjoy the sights, sounds and scents of plants at the end of their growing season and learn how fruits and seeds are used by wildlife and humans. Lance is a biologist and land manager with the North American Land Trust and is currently caretaker of a 3,000-acre, privately owned tract of land near Glenville, NC. He has held posts in education, natural history interpretation, biology, forestry, botany and horticulture since 1975.

You must pre-register for education programs online at AshevilleBotanicalGardens.org. Programs are $15 for members and $20 for non-members.

The Botanical Gardens at Asheville, located at 151 W. T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. The Gardens are open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Visitor Center and Gift Shop are open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Learn more at AshevilleBotanicalGardens.org.

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