This past weekend finally gave us fall weather without the rain, creating an ideal weekend for getting outside, so I logged quite a few miles on my pedometer. During a walk in the woods with a few friends, I spied some sassafras leaves on the path and was surprised to learn that my friends weren’t familiar with this unusual tree. I was delighted to share what I knew about one of my favorite native trees found throughout the eastern half of the United States, including Ohio.
The most unique feature of the sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is that it has three different shaped leaves – mitten shaped with a lobe on either the right or left side, ovate, and two lobed – all on the same tree. My favorite sassafras attribute is its wonderful fragrance, sort of a citrusy essence, which is released when the leaves are crushed. I wish someone would make this into a candle scent. It is a beautiful fall tree, producing lovely crimson, orange, and yellow autumn color. It also provides small yellow flowers in early spring and dark blue berries hanging on bright red stems on the female trees in September. The fruit is eaten by deer, bears, wild turkeys, and a wide variety of other birds. The sassafras grows rapidly and spreads by root suckers to form large colonies in the wild. These suckers can be removed if a single tree is desired as a yard specimen: however, allowing the tree to colonize will produce an attractive thicket for more spacious areas. The tree grows best in full sun or light shade in slightly acidic, well drained soils.
The champion sassafras is located in Owensboro, Kentucky, and is estimated to be more than 300 years old. The story is that this tree was scheduled for removal in the mid 1950s for a road widening project. Lucky for us, a tree enthusiast named Grace Rush intervened, brandishing a gun toward anyone who came close until finally, the governor stepped in and the tree was saved. It is pretty amazing the tree is still there as it is a street tree, meaning it has a hard life dealing with limited root space, compaction, mowers, vehicle fumes and more. This tree is 283 inches in circumference, 62 feet high, and 51 feet in crown spread. This special tree is honored with an historic marker explaining it was first recognized for its impressive size way back in 1883. At the time the plaque was erected the tree was more than 100 feet tall. It is incredible to think that this tree was around for the American Revolution.
Ohio’s biggest sassafras is located in Portage County. It has a circumference of 205 inches, tree height of 57 feet, and a crown spread of 61 feet. It joined the Ohio Champion Tree Registry in 2013. Sassafras wood has an attractive grain and light golden color and is used in tables, benches, cabinets, fencing, cooperage and canoes. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry, has a wealth of information about trees, including the national and Ohio champion tree lists, an index of Ohio trees, where to find Ohio’s state forests, how to manage woodlands and urban forests, and more! Check it out at forestry.ohiodnr.gov. In the meantime, take a walk in the woods and see if you can find the picturesque sassafras before winter arrives. Be sure to check out its three differently shaped leaves and its distinct bouquet.
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.delawareswcd.org.