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Identifying Trees By Their Leaves: Three Different Leaf Shapes of the Sassafras Tree

A Mystery In My Yard

by Jackie D. Kimball

Four years ago I planted four shrubs. One died and I pulled up the decayed matter.The next spring I saw what I thought was the fourth shrub shooting back up after all. It was in a secluded place between a huge October Rose and Daddy's old tin shed. I hadn't noticed it before. I didn't give it much thought until late summer when I was spraying some weed killer nearby.

A glance in the direction of the newest shrub puzzled me. The leaves were different from the other shrubs. On closer examination, I realized that this was not a shrub at all, but appeared to be a tree with no recognizable leaf features for identification.In fact this new sapling ,now reaching about two feet, had two different kind of leaves. Apparently it was a volunteer, or planted by a bird, or the wind.I had much work to do, and the day was getting hotter, so I left the tree and thought about it no more.

The next year the tree grew by leaps and bounds. It was a slender tree, and now had three distinctly different leaf shapes.Obviously not the shrub I thought it was, but what? Some leaf shapes were oval, some two lobed and in the shape of a mitten, and some were three lobed and resembled some kind of oak leaf.

Using my Google search engine ,and a trip to the library for book on tree identification gave me a positive identification of the tree. Not some kind of freak occurance, but a well known tree most easily identified by its three different kind of leaf shapes on one tree. It was a sassafras tree. Ironic. I live in Louisiana , and the crushed dried leaves of the sassafras tree are used to make file, a gumbo seasoning. Sorry folks, but I had never seen one.The librarian told me that they are rare in our area because of the soil . Since I live next to a bayou, soil conditions were more favorable.

I don't really like where it is located, but I learned that because of it's long taproot, moving the tree would most likely kill it. I learned that shoots will come up and perhaps I can move a young sapling, and make sure it is growing before I move the sassafras tree which is now about eighteen feet tall.It's diameter is only about three or four inches, so it just might make it.

Young Sassafras Shoot


Identifying a Sassafras Tree

Sassafras is the laurel family (or genus lauraceae).

LEAVES and BARK As I mentioned, the tree has unusual foliage with three distinctly different leaf patterns on the same tree.The leaves are oval, bilobed (tsometime referred to as the mitten shape) and trilobed.The tree has slender branches, and depending on soil and weather conditions can grow very quickly in it's sapling years.Most of the trees will grow about fifty feet, but has been known to grow much higher. The bark on a mature tree is reddish or orange/brown.

IN THE SPRING Take a walk in the springtime before the leaves appear and you'll note that the sassafras tree has little yellow flowers with a very fragrant sweet smell.

IN THE SUMMER The leaves are a bright green and are about four to seven inches in length.

IN THE FALL The foliage is beautiful in crimson, gold, orange ,and sometimes purple.Female trees produce a berry on a long red stem if there is also a male tree. THE BERRIES ARE NOT EDIBLE!

SMELL the twigs. Break off a tiny twig. It will have a rootbeer smell. One person said that he felt it was more of a FRUIT LOOP smell, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Especially upon crushing the leaves , you will smell this unusual smell.

Identifying the Sassafras Tree

Can you really make rootbeer from a sassafras tree?

Yes , you can. There are recipes passed down from generation to generation, and I used to buy the sassafras concentrate and make my own. However ,in the late sixties the Food and Drug Administration banned the sell of any beverages or foods containing sassafras because of a carcinogenic substance called saffrole. Sassafras is also a blood thinner, and could potentially cause serious problems.

I stopped making rootbeer because the rootbeer concentrate was no longer marketed. I don't plan to make any with my tree. I might crush a leaf and put it in a gumbo .At any rate, I'm enjoying the lovely fragrance when I touch the leaves. I've been told as the tree matures, the smell is even more intense.



g haas on July 27, 2019:

I wish I could find a way to get rid of my Sassafras trees! Once you get them started you can not get rid of them. You should warn your readers about that too. Mine are all natural and continue to grow into my grass areas. And they sprout up everywhere!

M M Meredith on June 10, 2016:

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Yes Yes, sassafras a beautiful and interesting tree.

I have transplanted two of them with complete success.

And the wood makes very beautiful and strong, durable canoe paddles, greatly treasured in the Ozarks; they are fairly rare because it is difficult to find trees that are large enough (at least 10 inches diameter) to make the paddle. It is said that an owner of a sassafras paddle cannot sell it - it can only be GIVEN to a friend !

Columbia, Missouri

grkdsrl on June 18, 2015:

Debby.... thanks for the info.....I had decided a couple of years ago that several of the trees in our woods must be sassafras but decided I was wron because our home is in the marshy areas of south east Massachusetts and I thought sassafras was native only to warmer areas.....glad to have the confirmation......even without the botanical ingredient, rootbeer remains my favorite soft drink

Fremont, NC on May 01, 2013:

We had a very large area of pampas grass that we had to have dug up with a backhoe and during the "extraction" we noticed a tall slender tree that had come up in the pampas grass. With careful manipulation the tree was able to be saved . It had started to sprout little leaves and tiny yellow flowers so it was a mystery tree. As the leaves begin to get larger they did not look like any trees in our area. I searched the Internet to determine the tree variety and I finally found out that it is a sassafras tree. We plan to let the tree stay in its current location since they don't transplant easily. Thank you for helping me to determine what our mystery tree is!

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on September 17, 2012:

Thanks,Debby. I am shocked at how fast it has grown.Amazingly,it is already about 6 feet above the shed! It is absolutely beautiful in the fall as well. I really need to be sure and take a picture of the fall foliage and insert it somewhere. (Memo to self,lol...)

Debby Bruck on September 16, 2012:

Dear Jackie ~ Loved your story and how the sassafras ended up in your garden, no one knows. Root beer was one of my favorite drinks as a youngster, and since I love forestry, I knew about the sassafras, but NOT that it was as old as the Ginkgo with the dinosaurs. Enjoy your gumbo.

Darn! Your little sprout may live to be one thousand years old.

Some facts about habitat: Sassafras is native from southwestern Maine west to New York, extreme southern Ontario, and central Michigan; southwest in Illinois, extreme southeastern Iowa, Missouri, southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas; and east to central Florida (8). It is now extinct in southeastern Wisconsin but is extending its range into northern Illinois (5).

Gave this a "beautiful" for learning and enjoyment. Blessings, Debby

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on May 31, 2011:

Becky, thank you! I'm so sorry I am so late replying. Long story. My daughter ahd a stroke,my computer bit the dust, had to buy a new one today..yada,yada,ya.....The tree grows very fast. You should plant one!

Becky from Oklahoma on April 06, 2011:

It was so cool to learn about the Sassafras tree that was growing in the wild with your shrubs. I'm originally from Louisiana and am a huge fan of Sassafras. I have to special order it since the stores around here don't and won't carry it. I would be tickled pink if I had a Sassafras bush/tree growing on my yard. Thanks so much for writing about this. Voted up and awesome.

rosefriest on November 19, 2010:

great leaves1

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on October 03, 2010:

erthfriend-Exactly.Fun!I can't wait until the leaves start changing so I can get a fall leaves photo!

erthfrend from Florida on October 03, 2010:

It sounds like a beautiful tree! Its so fun and interesting to discover something new and "mysterious" growing in your yard! Great hub, I enjoyed reading it as I love nature!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on September 04, 2010:

Oh, I love the smell of sassafras - didn't they use it to make sassparilla? Sort of like root beer, or maybe the original root beer?

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 30, 2010:

patdmania,thanks for commenting! Yes,you may just have a find in your own yard!

patdmania from waterford, mi on August 30, 2010:

Thanks for the good hub! Very informative! Going to check out some of my trees.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 28, 2010:

Hi Listlady. That's the cool thing about it. This is NOT 3 different trees! Al three types of leaves grow on one tree;the sassafras tree......Neat,huh?

TheListLady from New York City on August 24, 2010:

Oh, I definitely want all 3 trees - how beautiful - and I've been around a million years and I am sure I had real root beer from sassafras - thrillesville! - and certainly the tea.

Great hub!

kaltopsyd from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA on August 18, 2010:

haha. Nice!

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 18, 2010:

Hi kalto, thanks for commenting. Well, a maple tree looks like....hum.....Well it sure produces a tasty sap! lol!

kaltopsyd from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA on August 17, 2010:

Interesting Hub! The only trees I can decipher are pine and maple... pine looks like a Christmas tree and the maple... well, I don't know how I know what a maple tree looks like.

Thanks for an informative Hub.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 16, 2010:

Hi RedElf, thanks for commenting! Yes,plants are just fascinating!

RedElf from Canada on August 16, 2010:

Thanks for this - you have inspired me to get out and look at the trees around here.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 16, 2010:

zannie 10,thanks for the comments! I would have never thought to plant a sassafras tree, but now I want more! It grew fast and is so pretty! The leaves smell awesome.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 16, 2010:

Hi mailxpress, thanks for the kind comments! I plan to take a picture of the leaves in a few weeks, because the fall leaf show is absolutely vivid with crimson and orange.

Zannie10 on August 15, 2010:

Great Hub! Being a Biology minor, this really grabbed my interest, especially after just taking a course on Botany! You really gave us a lot of information on trees and leaves. Thanks! :)

Michelle Cesare from New York on August 15, 2010:

I came across your Hub through shetoldme and I'm happy I was brought to your Hub.

What an interesting Hub. I can see how not knowing what is growing in your backyard would strike interest. I too would have taken the time to research to find out exactly what the tree is.

Interesting with beautiful pictures. Let us know in the future if this tree brings more of the same. Before it matures move it to a location you desire.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 09, 2010:

Billy, I appreciate that you read and commented!I'm tickled pink to have the tree growing in my yard.It's a rarity around here. I had never seen one until it came up on it's own. When I saw the 3 different kind of leaves, I was totally puzzled. Did some reasearch and i'm hooked!

billyaustindillon on August 09, 2010:

Enjoyed the hub BayouLady - this is a great educational one and I like doing this with my boys they get a real kick out of finding their own things in nature - leaves, pine cones, rocks....

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 03, 2010:

Stars,thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you and yours are staying cool in Tickfaw.I know where Tickfaw is. Y'all didn't get quite as hot as we did up in northeast LA.

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on August 02, 2010:

Thank you for this interesting and excitingly enjoyable hub. The sasafras tree sure has some great qualities and many uses as well. Must be so pleasant to smell. We live in Tickfaw, Louisiana , the Souteast area of the state about five miles from Southeastern University. God Bless You Dear Heart.

Wealthmadehealthy from Somewhere in the Lone Star State on August 01, 2010:

Well, now I do not understand why you cannot do the "steeping" yourself....then you could still make the rootbeer!

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on July 31, 2010:

Wealthmadehealthy- thanks for reading and commenting. I'll tweak the hub in a day or two and add that. thanks for the suggestion! The concentrate was steeped sassafras. It came in a yellow bottle.It was so good.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on July 31, 2010:

storyteller- I hope you took that walk to enjoy nature, but we had a humid 102 degrees here today with a heat index of 110 degrees! I hunkered down inside the house by the AC vent!

Wealthmadehealthy from Somewhere in the Lone Star State on July 31, 2010:

Oh man, you forgot to mention sassafras tea.......That is good stuff.....And I'll bet you could still make rootbeer somehow...who needs that ole concentrate is probably just full of chemicals....LOL

Great hub!!

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on July 31, 2010:

Okay, that's it. I'm going for a walk!!! We do not have sassafras trees... but the sound of tweeting birds does not change and the green green is so inspiring. I can tell I need to walk.

My Dad used to make rootbeer from sassafras. It was the best. DADDY's rootbeer we used to call it- as opposed to DAD's rootbeer, haha. Cancer didn't kill my dad, and blood thinners might have helped his heart. Oh well.

Great hub.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on July 31, 2010:

akirchner - thanks for reading and commenting!There are plenty of good recipes out there, but since it is a blood thinner, I don't think it's advisable for me. The thing is, it is delicious, so I don't want to even get started!LOL!You can even use the leaves steeped in water,and strained to make a body cleanser from the liquid.

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on July 31, 2010:

Thanks for that enlightening hub on leaf shapes! I had no idea you really could make rootbear from sassafras so I guess I learned something new today.

bayoulady (author) from Northern Louisiana,USA on July 31, 2010:

RevLady- thanks so much for reading and commenting. I love botany! Just got interested in it again this year. I HAD to take it in college, so I got rid of that big thick text book asap when the class was over......Wish I would have kept it!

RevLady from Lantana, Florida on July 31, 2010:

I love nature and enjoyed learning here about various types of trees. There is such mystery in simple leaves. Great hub. Thank you.

Forever His,

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