|Botanical Name||Sassafras albium|
|Mature Size||30 to 60 ft. tall, 25 to 40 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, part shade|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, moist, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic (6.0 to 7.0)|
|Hardiness Zones||4-9, USA|
|Native Area||Eastern North America|
Sassafras is a low-maintenance, hardy tree. The only regular care it requires is when you grow it as a specimen tree. In that case you need to keep removing the root suckers by cutting them at ground level, or else it will have a shrubby appearance or grow into a thicket.
The leaves of sassafras are edible and quite tasty. They are mildly citric, slightly like lemongrass. If you do want to take a taste, reach for young leaves, as older leaves can be bitter.
Sassafras grows well in both full sun and part shade, ideally in patchy sun, growing as an understory tree. Depending on the location, the canopy is different. In full sun, it’s broad and leafy whereas in understory locations, it has a single layer of umbrella-shaped branches. The tree does not tolerate deep shade.
Sassafras grows well in loamy as well as sandy soil. Good soil drainage is especially important. The tree does not tolerate soggy soil.
Young trees need to be watered until they are established. During the first growing season, if it doesn’t rain, water the tree once or twice a week. Make sure to water it deeply so that the water reaches all the way down to the tree’s deep tap root.
Temperature and Humidity
Sassafras is tolerant of a wide range of climate conditions, from subzero temperatures to humidity and heat. In colder climate, the tree develops a more shrub-like appearance.
Do not fertilize a newly planted tree during the first year, which can stunt its growth. In averagely fertile soil, established trees usually do not need fertilizer, but if your soil lacks nutrients, feed it with a complete fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season.
If you grow sassafras as a specimen, it does not require much pruning other than removing weak branches in late winter or early spring before tree leaves out. It is, however, a tree that colonizes the area, sending up small sassafras in the surrounding area. This is not a big deal if you mow or weed regularly, but if you want a low-maintenance tree, this may not be the one for you.
Sassafras stands can be pruned to give the thickets a neater appearance but it’s not essential for tree health.
Because of their large taproot, sassafras is difficult to transplant. Container-grown nursery trees have the best chances of survival.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
As a tree that is native to North America, sassafras is generally not affected by many pests and diseases. Two invasive pests from Asia, however, can be a problem: Japanese beetles and the redbay ambrosia beetle, which is not directly damaging the tree, but transmits laurel wilt disease, a deadly fungus, into the sapwood of the tree. When you notice that your sassafras tree is wilting and dying from the fungus, it is unfortunately already too late.
The other serious pest is the sassafras borer. The larvae bore holes in the bark of the terminal (i.e. the “head” of a tree branch) and the tips of small branches, resulting in wilting of the foliage. Young trees are especially susceptible and might die if the infestation is major. Woodpeckers might come to your rescue by eating small numbers of the larvae and pupae. For a non-chemical control measure, remove infested terminals and branches, in which the female beetles have laid their eggs. Safely dispose of the branches in the trash or destroy them to break the two-year life cycle of the borer.
Sassafras prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil so if the leaves turn chlorotic, the soil might be too alkaline. The tree is also vulnerable to ice storm damage.
Sassafras has a disproportionally slender trunk that can be as thin as six to eight inches in diameter when grown as an understory tree, which makes it susceptible to wind breakage.
Sassafras is a low-maintenance tree, drought-tolerant, and fairly pest-resistant.
In the right conditions, sassafras trees can grow as much as 4 feet per year.
Sassafras trees rarely live longer than 30 years.
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