Common throughout the eastern United States, sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Lauraceae) can be found in a variety of habitats. As a pioneer species (Immel 2001) these woody plants often thrive in disturbed areas along roads, fields, and forest openings. I often see young sassafras growing along woodland trails. Although common, it wasn’t until I visited Mammoth Cave National Park a few weeks ago that I finally took a picture of one.
Here in Michigan these plants are near the northern extent of their range and are often limited to shrubby growth. They grow as small to medium-sized trees in more southerly latitudes, and can reach ninety feet in height in the Great Smoky Mountains (Kershner et al. 2008).
Sassafras is pretty easy to identify thanks to the distinct three-lobed leaves. Single- and two-lobed leaves that look like mittens can also occur in fewer numbers. When crushed, the leaves give off a pungent spicy aroma.
For hundreds of years sassafras oil served a variety of culinary and medicinal uses (Immel 2001). In more recent time, one of the constituent compounds known as safrole has been found to be carcinogenic, and many trade groups have banned its use in foods and perfumes. Production and sale has also been controlled or banned by many governments because it’s used in the synthesis of the drug MDMA (ecstasy). The United States Drug Enforcement Administration lists it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law.
Immel, D.L. 2001. Plant Guide: Sassafras. United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Kershner, B., D. Mathews, G. Nelson, and R. Spellenberg. 2008. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Trees of North America. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., New York, NY.