Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees
  • LEAVES: alternate, simple, deciduous; blades 4-6” long, three shapes can be represented on a single plant: elliptic and unlobed, 2-lobed (mitten-shaped), and 3-lobed; crushed leaves aromatic; red fall color
  • FLOWER: imperfect (unisexual), plants dioecious; inflorescences racemes; flowers with 6 yellowish-green perianth parts to ca. 0.2” long; pistillate (female) flowers possess 6 short staminodes (non-functioning stamens); flowering before or as new leaves emerge in early spring
  • FRUIT:  dark blue drupe to ca. 0.4” long, subtended by swollen cuplike pedicel summit with blunt basal remains of perianth segments, pedicel red when fruits are ripe; fruit maturing early summer
  • TWIGS: smooth green, large terminal bud
  • BARK: green when young; on older trees, bark is gray to reddish-brown, tight, furrowed, with interlacing ridges, aromatic when cut
  • FORM: medium sized tree, max 100’ and 6’ dbh, usually encountered as a small tree, often expressions of root suckering
  • HABITAT: HABITAT: fence rows, old fields, forest edges, mesic to dry upland forests and woodlands, including fire-driven longleaf pine woodlands
  • WETLAND DESIGNATION: Facultative Upland (FACU): Usually occurs in non-wetlands, but may occur in wetlands of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Plain Region
  • RANGE: eastern US  [MAP]
  • USES: durable heartwood, extensively used in the past for siding, paneling, furniture, boat construction, boat paddles, fence posts; oil of sassafras is used in foods and medicines, including illicit drugs such as MDMA (“ecstasy”); leaves ground for gumbo filé
  • Best Recognition Features:
    1. leaves of three shapes – unlobed, mitten, and 3-lobed
    2. smooth green twigs
    3. bark of older trees reddish brown, furrowed with interlacing ridges, aromatic
    4. crushed leaves strongly aromatic

    NOTES: Persea borbonia var. pubescens (swamp bay) some recognize as a separate species: Persea palustris; densely pubescent twigs and leafstalks. Called "swamp bay" on wet sites, "red bay" on mesic to xeric woodlands.

    Sassafras and the red bays (Persea spp.) are now in danger of massive die-backs and elimination by an exotic fungus: Raffaelea lauricola ('laurel wilt pathogen') transferred from tree to tree by ambrosia beetles.  Information on the fungus and the implications of infection are available from the USDA Forest Service here.