Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a small deciduous tree, that produces alternate leaves in three different shapes: a mitten shaped leaf with one large lobe and one smaller “thumb” lobe, a simple oval shaped leaf, and a three lobed leaf. All three leaf types can occur on the same branch. During the growing season, sassafras leaves are bright green above and glaucous below. The species name “albidum” is derived from the Latin word “albus”, which means white, referring to this lighter color underneath the leaves. In the fall, however, sassafras leaves transition to a splendid mix of yellows, oranges and reds – a stark contrast to the mostly green and brown pines and oaks in Bourne’s forests.
The three different leaf shapes can be seen on this sassafras seedling.
Native to North America, this tree occurs throughout eastern deciduous forests. Because sassafras trees can spread through root suckers, they can form large colonies in the wild, with all of the trees in a particularly colony originating from the same parent. Seedlings and young trees can tolerate shade fairly well, and are often seen in the understory of upper Cape Cod forests. However, because the plant requires full sun for good growth, larger trees are most often associated with gaps created by fallen trees.
Sassafras bark appears smooth and gray in young trees, but becomes more furrowed and reddish-brown as the tree ages.