How to identify sassafras tree in winter

Winter Botany: Twigs and Buds

During the colder winter months, many of our trees are “closed for the season.” Like island businesses, trees will have an “opening date” sometime in spring when flower buds will pop and leaves will unfurl. Exploring the forest in winter can be a fun way to see another facet of island ecology and learn to recognize the details that make tree species distinctive and unique.

Have you ever tried to identify trees in winter condition? This blog article will give you a good start. On Nantucket we have fewer species of trees in our forests than in many mainland locations, so it’s something of a beginner’s paradise. Above is a collage showing twigs of our most common deciduous trees that may be found in areas with mesic (moist) forest, mainly on the northeastern region of the island, such as Squam Farm & Squam Swamp, Norwood Farm, Windswept Bog, and Masquetuck Reservation.

One of the easiest trees to learn how to identify in winter is the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), which is particularly common in forested areas of Squam. Stands of young sassafras trees have a characteristic upside-down-umbrella theme to their canopies and you can learn to spot them from a distance.

Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) have an interesting branch pattern and young groves can be identified at a distance.

Older sassafras trees become more irregular in their branching patterns and may easily be confused with tupelo, another common tree of our mixed deciduous forests. Take a closer look and Sassafras’s green twigs with large buds alternating on the stem will help you recognize this species at any size. A “scratch-and-sniff” of the inner bark on a twig will clinch the identification–sassafras bark has a spicy lemony scent.

Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is even more widespread on Nantucket than sassafras, and is often found in wetter areas and around ponds. It has many short spur branches that jut out from the main branch at right angles and small nondescript buds. Tupelos often grow in dense stands that are sculpted by the wind. They have a tendency to form a flat-topped tree when growing alone in the open. Cutting a twig open lengthwise reveals that the inner part of the twig is partitioned neatly by tiny walls called septae, clinching the identification on this species.

Another easy to learn tree is the red maple (Acer rubrum) which on Nantucket is mainly found in wet areas, often in low lying spots known as “hidden forests.” Surrounded by vernal pools and mats of sphagnum moss, this tree can be identified from a distance by its red buds and twigs that occur opposite one another on the stems.

Red maple buds are neatly arranged in opposing clusters of three — two small lateral buds flanking a larger central bud on each side of the stem. In late winter, red maple buds become swollen and the red color becomes even more obvious  as trees prepare to burst into scarlet flower.

In contrast, oaks have irregular clusters of buds that alternate on either side along the stem.  Black oak (Quercus velutina) has large, velvety pointed buds . This species has been plagued in recent years by oak crypt gall wasps, which leaves the trees in poor condition as the insect larvae inhabiting the twigs cause a lot of damage. From a distance you can often spot the knobby deformities on the twigs containing the gall wasp larvae. You can read more about oak gall wasps in a previous blog article: Black Oak Gall & Parasitoids blog. Leaves on this species have sharply pointed lobes and often remain on branches through the winter, as described in an earlier blog post.

White oak (Quercus alba) has smaller rounded buds in clusters, and like black oak, often has some remaining dried leaves long into the winter. Both black and white oak produce copious acorns in some years, but good luck finding any in February, as the squirrels have usually hidden most of them away!

Another tree popular with squirrels is the mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), which is usually found in drier upland sites. This species has very thick twigs and large stout buds. The buds themselves are covered in protective scales that have a velvety coating. you can often find remnants of the large nuts on the ground beneath a mockernut, typically just the large watermelon-shaped outer husks. As with the acorns, mockernuts are usually in squirrel food caches by late winter.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is easy to recognize by its smooth elephantine grey bark, but a close-up look at the twigs and nuts is a good way to get to know this species better. Beech’s slender twigs have a zig-zag pattern and distinctive long narrow buds. If you happen to find a tree that has had a good fruiting year, you will notice lots of burr-like husks on the ground beneath. Each of these capsules splits open to release small nutlets, each with a triangular cross-section. Beech nuts are popular with wildlife  — you guessed it, squirrels, but also a variety of bird species and rodents.

If you’ve enjoyed this intro to Nantucket’s common forest trees in winter, please put your new winter tree ID skills to use and visit one of our island forests for a hands-on look.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!

Sassafras Tree: Leaves, Flowers, Bark (Pictures)

Sassafras is a group of deciduous trees with unusually lobed leaves, clusters of golden-yellow flowers, and dark blue berry-like drupes. Sassafras trees are also highly aromatic trees. In fall, when the foliage turns spectacular orange, scarlet, yellow, and purple colors, the leaves give off a strong fragrance. In the spring, the blossoms smell of root beer. Sassafras trees are relatively fast-growing trees, and the common Sassafras albidum matures at 30 to 60 ft. (9 – 18 m) tall and 25 to 40 ft. (7.6 – 12 m) wide.

Species of sassafras trees are relatively easy to identify in landscapes. The highly aromatic leaves give off a citrusy aroma and have distinct patterns. The sassafras leaves can be oval or lobed, with lobes numbering between two and five.

This article is a guide on how to identify species of native sassafras trees. Pictures and descriptions of sassafras leaves, bark, flowers, and fruit will help you recognize these attractive ornamental medium-sized trees.

Sassafras Tree Facts

Sassafras tree

There are three species of sassafras native to North America and Asia—Sassafras albidum, Sassafras randaiense, and Sassafras tzumu. The common recognizable features of sassafras trees are their aromatic properties and unusually shaped leaves. However, the shrub-like tree also has suckering tendencies and can quickly become a large multi-stemmed shrub.

Sassafras albidum tree with multiple suckers

Sassafras trees thrive in USDA zones 4 to 9. The trees are commonly found on the east coast of the United States. They grow in open woodlands and well-drained soils from Rhode Island to the northern regions of Florida and east to Texas and Iowa.

Sassafras trees grow best in full sun to partial shade. In garden landscapes, sassafras trees thrive in well-drained, acidic soil. In ideal conditions, sassafras trees are fast-growing trees that grow between 12” and 24” (30 – 60 cm) a year. Sassafras albidum and Sassafras randaiense grow 30 to 60 ft. (9 – 18 m) tall. Sassafras tzumu is native to eastern Asia and grows up 115 ft. (35 m) tall.

Mature sassafras trees have a pyramidal or rounded crown. Because the sassafras tree’s taproots spread with suckers, the tree can grow into a large shrub. In open woodlands, it’s not unusual to see colonies of sassafras that are all connected to the same parent tree.

Sassafras Leaves

Sassafras leaves

Sassafras tree leaves are the easiest way to identify this deciduous tree. Sassafras leaves can be oval, mitten-shaped, and three-lobed. The medium-sized leaves grow between 3” and 7” (7.5 – 18 cm) and up to 4” (10 cm) wide. The yellow-green leaves emit a pungent citrus scent when crushed.

Sassafras albidum foliage

Sassafras trees have polymorphic leaves, meaning that a single tree can have leaves in different shapes. Three-lobed leaves are the most common leaf shape. However, some sassafras trees have five- or seven-lobed leaves.

Sassafras leaf variations: unlobed, bilobed and trilobed

One reason to plant a sassafras tree in a garden landscape is for its fall colors. Before the leaves drop, the foliage turns spectacular showy shades of orange, red, yellow, and purple.

Sassafras autumn foliage

Sassafras Flowers

Close up images of Sassafras albidum female flowers (left) and male flowers (right)

Sassafras tree flowers have recognizable six-petaled, star-shaped yellow blossoms that measure 1” to 2” (2.5 – 5 cm) long. The greenish-yellow flower clusters appear at the ends of branch tips in early spring and persist for a few weeks. Pollinated female flowers develop into clusters of dark blue or black berry-like drupes.

Sassafras flowers

Sassafras Bark

Sassafras bark

Sassafras tree bark is an attractive red-brown color that is smooth in immature trees and gradually develops interlacing furrows and ridges as it matures. Like other parts of the tree, the bark has a strong aromatic scent when cut. In winter landscapes, sassafras trees are identified by their attractive reddish-gray bark.

Sassafras Fruit

A close up picture of Sassafras green immature fruit. Blue-black drupes were on the red stems

Sassafras trees produce clusters of dark blue edible drupes, each containing a single seed. After flowering in spring, clusters of flowers give way to blackish-blue drupes contained in red cup-like receptacles. Sassafras fruit lasts on the tree during the summer. However, the tasty fruits are popular with deer, small mammals, and birds who are attracted to the tree for food.

Sassafras Seeds

Each blue sassafras drupe contains a single seed surrounded by pulpy flesh. Birds usually distribute the seeds. Sassafras seeds typically germinate the following spring after being planted in soil or landing on the ground. The ideal conditions for sassafras tree seeds to sprout are rich, loamy soil that is moist.

After seeds sprout in full sun, the tree grows rapidly and can grow 4 ft. (1.2 m) in the first year. Four years after germination, a sassafras tree measures around 15 ft. (4.5 m) tall. Unless the suckers are removed, and dense thicket will form a sassafras shrub.

Sassafras Tree Identification

Sassafras tree identification is by its characteristic aromatic leaves, yellow star-shaped flowers, and reddish-gray bark. The easily recognizable tree feature is the mitten-shaped or three-lobed green-yellowish leaves. You can also identify sassafras trees by crushing the leaves or cutting the bark to see if it exudes a strong lemony aroma.

If you notice differently shaped leaves on a tree, it is probably identified as a sassafras tree.

Where Sassafras Trees Grow

Sassafras trees grow in open woodlands where there is moist, well-drained loamy soil. The deciduous native trees are common throughout the central and eastern United States.  You will often find sassafras trees growing near flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida), eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana), beech (Fagus grandifolia), and sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum).

What is Sassafras Used For?

Sassafras has many culinary uses and was commonly used in North American traditional medicine. Sassafras was the main ingredient of root beer and gave it its characteristic flavor. Crushed sassafras leaves are used to thicken gumbo and give Louisiana Creole cuisine its distinctive taste.

Since the 1960s, sassafras root oil is no longer used in the product of traditional root beer due to its potential carcinogenic properties. Studies found that safrole (which is a component found in sassafras oil) is linked to cancer, as well as kidney and liver problems. However, a 1997 study reported that herbal products derived from sassafras don’t contain any detectable amounts of safrole.

Safrole can harm people and pets if consumed in large enough amounts.

About Sassafras Albidum

Sassafras albidum is the most common species of sassafras tree in North America. The medium-sized deciduous tree also goes by the names white sassafras, red sassafras, or silky sassafras. Sassafras albidum grows 50 to 60 ft. (15 – 20 m) tall and has a pyramidal crown up to 40 ft. (12 m) wide.

Sassafras albidum is identified by the three leaf shapes—egg-shaped, two-lobed like mittens, and three-lobed leaves. The leaves have a pungent lemon scent when crushed. It’s rare to find leaves with more than three lobes growing on Sassafras albidum trees. In the fall, silky sassafras trees turn magnificent reds, pinks, oranges, and purples.

In early spring, bright yellow six-petaled flowers appear in drooping clusters. After blooming for two or three weeks, pollinated sassafras flowers develop into blackish-blue drupes that appear in dangling clusters.

Its aromatic, citrusy bark has deep furrows and is a reddish-brown color.

Growing Sassafras in a Container

Sassafras trees can grow well in containers on a patio, deck area, paved yard, balcony, or container garden. However, the size of the pot will limit the tree’s growth, and regular pruning will keep it growing like a small tree or shrub. To grow a potted sassafras tree, plant in fertile, well-drained soil, and place in bright, indirect sunlight.

To ensure the sassafras thrives in the potting soil, water whenever the top layer of soil feels dry. In addition, regular pruning in the spring can help create a bushier shrub-like tree. Although the sassafras plant is drought-tolerant, it performs better in moist but not soggy soil.

How to Care for Sassafras Trees

Let’s look in more detail at the best way to care for a sassafras tree in a garden landscape.

Where to Plant Sassafras Tree

The best place to plant a sassafras tree is in full sun to partial shade. Getting at least six hours of sunlight daily ensures that the foliage grows well, and the tree blooms every spring. Sassafras trees also adapt well to partial shade in balanced, loamy soil that provide excellent drainage.

Planting a sassafras tree in full sun is also vital to get the most vibrant fall colors.

As an easy-to-grow tree, sassafras trees perform well in most soil types. They will grow in clay, sandy soil, loam, and acidic soils. The essential care aspect for growing sassafras trees is excellent drainage. The taproots of the tree are prone to rot and decay if they grow in soggy conditions.

Sassafras trees grow best as a specimen or shade tree. However, you can allow suckers to grow if you want to have an informal hedge or summer privacy screen in your backyard.

How to Water Sassafras Tree

Sassafras trees require regular watering to keep the ground moist during spring and summer. It may be necessary to water the ground two or three times a week if the soil dries out. Also, immature sassafras trees require regular watering to help a robust root system develop.

Once established, sassafras trees are relatively drought-tolerant plants. To know when it’s time to water a sassafras tree in your garden, check the ground for moisture. If the soil seems damp, you can hold off watering for a couple of days. Then give the ground a deep soaking to ensure that the deepest roots are well hydrated.

As with many trees tolerant of drought, too much water can affect the plant’s growth. As a rule, only water the tree when the ground is dry. It’s usually not necessary to water the plant during winter.

Sassafras Tree Growing Zone, Temperature, and Humidity

Sassafras trees are cold-hardy trees that thrive in USDA zones 4 through 9 in full sun or partial shade. The strong, deep taproots withstand temperatures as low as -30°F (-34°C). Also, it is a good idea to ensure that the sassafras trees get protection from the wind.

To ensure that a sassafras tree survives winter, it’s essential to protect the root area with mulch. Spread a thick layer of wood mulch, pine needles, or a mulch alternative on the ground under the tree’s canopy. To prevent root rot, leave a 2” (5 cm) gap between the trunk and the mulch. Mulching ensures the ground doesn’t freeze down to the roots and prevents weeds from growing.

Sassafras trees also adapt well to high humidity. However, to prevent fungal foliage diseases, you should ensure plenty of air circulation between the leaves.

How to Plant Sassafras Tree

To plant a sassafras tree in your garden, choose the sunniest spot that has excellent drainage. Dig a hole three times the root ball diameter and slightly shallower than the root ball. Place the sassafras root ball in the hole, ensuring it is 1” (2.5 cm) above the soil line. Back-fill the remaining space and press down the soil as you fill the hole. Thoroughly water the site to remove any air pockets.

It’s good to note that transplanting an established sassafras tree is difficult due to its large, extensive taproot system.

Sassafras Tree Fertilization

Established sassafras trees require fertilization twice a year to encourage healthy foliage, plenty of flowers, and abundant fruits. You should apply a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer in February and then in mid-summer.

If you notice that the tree isn’t producing plenty of leaves, choose a high-nitrogen fertilizer to encourage dense leaf growth.

It’s always a good idea to test the soil for nutrient deficiencies before applying a specific fertilizer to target nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Related reading: The best tree fertilizers.

Pruning Sassafras Tree

It is rarely necessary to prune sassafras trees. However, cutting back branches in the winter of immature trees helps to promote a strong branch structure. With mature trees, remove dead and broken branches to keep the ornamental tree’s attractive appearance.

If you want to keep a sassafras tree shrub size, cut the stems back before winter to encourage bushy growth and control its height.

How to Propagate Sassafras Tree

The easiest and fastest way to propagate sassafras trees is by root cuttings. In early spring or winter, dig a hole about 12” (30 cm) in diameter and 20” (50 cm) deep near the base of the tree. Look for healthy roots that have at least one sprout from one of the roots. Then, using sharp pruning shears, cut a section 3” to 6” (7.5 – 15 cm) long.

After taking the root cuttings, place them in a container filled with sand and keep them moist. Once new growth appears, you can transplant the tree to your garden when the risk of frost has passed.

Another method of propagating sassafras trees is by harvesting, then germinating the seeds. Or you can try to find suckers far from the main tree as they have an independent root system. However, transplanting suckers is the least successful method of propagating a sassafras tree.

Pests and Diseases Affecting Sassafras Tree Growth

Sassafras are hardy trees that are typically resistant to pests. However, some pests that can affect a sassafras tree’s growth are large green silkmoth caterpillars, Japanese beetles, or sassafras weevils.

Because sassafras trees are a member of the laurel family Lauraceae, they can be affected by laurel wilt. This fungal infection occurs if redbay ambrosia beetles tunnel into the tree. The fungal infection causes severe disease and can end up killing a sassafras tree.

Overwatering can result in root rot and affect a sassafras tree’s growth. Signs that the tree is getting too much water or the ground drains poorly include yellowing leaves and a darkened band line around the soil line.


Is Sassafras a good tree for gardens?

Sassafras trees are ornamental trees that enhance the aesthetics and features of a garden. All parts of the tree are aromatic and give off a pleasant citrus aroma. Additionally, the yellow flowers smell like root beer when in bloom.

A sassafras tree is ideal for gardens because it has seasonal interest throughout the year. In the summer, the large, unusually shaped leaves provide plenty of shade. When the leaves turn color in the fall, the sassafras tree becomes one of the most attractive trees in a garden due to its red, orange, purple, and yellow leaves. Then in winter, the sassafras tree’s gorgeous silhouette and reddish-gray bark provide plenty of visual interest.

Is Sassafras easy to grow?

Sassafras trees are easy to grow, and their surface root system and deep taproot don’t cause any problems for nearby structures. The tree grows reasonably rapidly at a rate of up to 2 ft. (0.6 m) per year and multiplies via suckers. Once established, sassafras trees are tolerant of drought, heat, cold, and humidity. It is not even necessary to prune the trees.

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Native to eastern North America, range extends from southern Maine through Ontario, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Kansas to central Florida and eastern Texas.

Grows to large size in Arkansas and Missouri. As a smaller tree or even a shrub, it is found in northern Massachusetts and Florida and western Iowa. It grows in all types of deciduous forests, at an altitude of up to 1500 m above sea level.

It used to grow in southern Wisconsin, but is now extirpated as a native tree there.

Morphological description of the species

Sassafras white is a medium-sized, fast-growing, deciduous tree. It grows up to 15-25 m in height, with a crown up to 12 m wide with many thin sympodial branches and with a trunk up to 60 cm in diameter. The bark on the trunk of mature trees is thick, dark red-brown in color, deeply furrowed. The shoots are at first bright olive with a slimy coating, and after 2-3 years they become reddish-brown with small cracks.

Leaves alternate phyllotaxis, yellowish green, with short and finely serrated petiole. The leaf blade is ovate or obovate, 10-16 cm long and 5-10 cm wide. They come in three forms, which can simultaneously be on the same shoot: three-lobed, entire-elliptical and two-lobed (in the form of a mitten). Occasionally there are leaves with more than three lobes. In autumn they turn bright yellow and then turn red.

Dioecious tree - male and female flowers on separate trees. The flowers are yellow or greenish-yellow, arranged in loose, hanging, few-flowered, axillary racemes up to 5 cm long. Blooms in early spring, shortly before the leaves appear. Flower with 5-6 tepals. Staminate (male) flowers have 9stamens, and pistillate (female) flowers with an upper ovary 2-3 mm tall and with 6 staminodes or modified stamens. Pollination occurs by insects.

The fruit is a drupe 8 to 13 mm long with one seed, dark blue in color, attached to the shoot with a thickened, red stalk 20 mm long. The fruits usually ripen in August-September and are dispersed by birds.

All parts of the tree have a characteristic spicy aroma. Sassafras usually have root offspring, from which young trees subsequently grow.

Sassafras wood characteristics

Sassafras heartwood is light brown to orange brown or olive brown. The wood is similar to ash or chestnut. The narrow sapwood is yellowish-whitish-brown in color and does not differ sharply from the heartwood. The wood has a rough texture and is generally straight grained. Well known for its fragrance.

Wood soft (420-460 kg/m3) and flexible, Janke hardness: 630 lb F. Fairly strong and highly impact resistant.

Pre-drilling is recommended before nails, especially near the edges, so that the wood does not split. It sticks well, paints well and holds screws well. The heartwood is considered durable, the sapwood is susceptible to insect attacks.

Sassafras uses

Sassafras wood is used in furniture, interior and exterior joinery, windows, doors, kitchen cabinets and panels. Used to make barrels, bent furniture and boats. Orange dye is obtained from the bark of sassafras, and oil is obtained from the roots, which is a component of soap and perfume, and has an antiseptic effect. The bark was also used to make tea and root beer.

Interesting fact

The name "sassafras" was used by the botanist Nicholas Monard in 1569. Sir Francis Drake was one of the first to bring sassafras to England in 1586 and Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to export sassafras as a commodity in 1602.

Sassafras became a major export to England and other parts of Europe, as a medicinal root used to treat bouts of fevers and sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, and the wood became prized for its beauty and durability. After a commercial expedition in 1603 by Captain Martin Pring from Bristol to the coast of modern Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, in a short period in the early 17th century, sassafras became the second largest exported commodity from the British colonies of North America after tobacco.

How to identify a tree by its bark

Usually, to determine which tree is in front of us, we look at the leaves, fruits or flowers. However, you can also recognize a tree by other characteristics, for example, by bark .

“If you want to feel the forest, get lost among its trees. If you want to know trees, study their bark,” writes Michael Vojtech in the preface to his book Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast.

In the minds of the war, our knowledge was lost without advertising, and our spivrobitniki, apparently, are penniless. A lot of journalists with family, with children, they change with absolutely no expense for a foundation, Ale, they continue the healthy work, preparing reports from the city, like a stunned war, providing you with important and truthful information.

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How to identify a tree by bark

At first glance, the bark is unremarkable - it's just a rough brownish-gray shell of the trunk to the touch. But in fact, the bark of each tree has a unique pattern, texture, color and even smell. And, if you remember these basic signs, you can learn from them to distinguish between different tree species, without even looking at their foliage.

Smooth bark

Smooth bark without large cracks or breaks is a sign of a young tree. But some trees retain smooth bark throughout their lives.

Example: large-leaved beech (or American) and red maple.

How to identify a tree by its bark

Stripes on the bark where it peels off

Sometimes the bark of a tree peels off. This is because the wood grows faster than its skin and causes the outer layers to flake off. This is how horizontal and other stripes appear on the bark.

Example: paper birch peels off these layers in horizontal curly stripes.

How to identify a tree by its bark


Holes or similar formations in the bark, also called "lentils", come in many shapes, sizes and colors. They are needed so that oxygen and carbon dioxide can freely pass through the outer protective layer of the trunk. All trees have these pores, but some species show more than than others.

Example: Lentils look like dark horizontal lines on yellow (or Allegheny) birch and like diamonds on young American aspen.

How to identify a tree by its bark

Deep furrows and wrinkles

Some trees have rough bark with deep furrows-wrinkles.

Example: White (American) ash may have intersecting furrows. In red oak (other names: Canadian, holly or northern) - continuous. In white oak, they are divided horizontally.

How to identify a tree by its bark

Plates or “scales”

In some tree species, wrinkles form a kind of “scale”.

Example: there are “scales” on the bark of many species of pines and spruces, and the trunk of a black birch is decorated with thick plates of irregular shape.

How to identify a tree by bark

Thorns or outgrowths

Some tree species have atypical formations on the bark: thorns, outgrowths, etc.

Example: there are thorns reaching a length of 7 cm on the trunk and branches of the three-thorned locust. And the bark of Zanthoxylum clava-herculis is covered with unusual conical or domed bulges.

How to identify a tree by barkHow to identify a tree by bark


Different types of trees have bark of different shades: muted brown, gray, green or other colors.

Example: beeches have light gray bark and cherries have red-brown bark. Black walnut has a very dark bark, while birch has a white or silver bark.

How to identify a tree by bark


Another way to identify a tree is by smell. Some trees have a very distinct specific smell.

Example: Yellow pine (or Oregon) smells like toffee or vanilla, while other pines smell like turpentine (resin or resin).

Learn more