How to Grow and Care for Sassafras

Low-Maintenance Native Tree with Vibrant Fall Colors

Sassafras tree with broad lobed leaves on branches closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Sassafras is a native tree worth adding to your landscape for several reasons. It has pretty, aromatic spring flowers and its three types of leaves (entire, one-lobed, or two-lobed) turn a vibrant yellow, red, or orange in fall. Sassafras leaves are aromatic when crushed and the bark and branches of the tree are also fragrant when bruised or cut. 

The tree is tough—so tough, in fact, that it is frequently used in restoration sites with depleted soils because sassafras sends out root suckers that grow into colonies and thickets. This makes it a great choice for naturalized plantings or screens where it can spread freely. But sassafras can also be grown as a single specimen.

Sassafras is dioecious, with female and male flowers on separate trees. Male flowers look fuller and only female trees develop fruit if pollinated. You do not need to plant more than one tree unless you would like it to develop fruit. 

As a native tree, sassafras is a food source for white-tailed deer, woodchucks, marsh rabbits, black bears, and rabbits. Many species of birds and songbirds, including wild turkeys and mockingbirds, eat its bluish-black, drupe-shaped fruit.

Common name  Sassafras
Botanical Name  Sassafras albium
Family  Lauraceae
Plant Type  Tree
Mature Size  30 to 60 ft. tall, 25 to 40 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Full sun, part shade
Soil Type   Loamy, sandy, moist, well-drained
Soil pH   Neutral to acidic (6.0 to 7.0)
Bloom Time  Spring
Flower Color  Greenish-yellow
Hardiness Zones  4-9, USA
Native Area  Eastern North America

Sassafras Care

Sassafras is a low-maintenance, hardy tree. The only regular care it requires is when you grow it as a specimen tree. In that case you need to keep removing the root suckers by cutting them at ground level, or else it will have a shrubby appearance or grow into a thicket. 

Sassafras tree with thin light-colored trunk with umbrella-shaped branches with lobed leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Sassafras tree trunk surrounded by lobed leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Sassafras tree trunk with ridged bark closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Sassafras grows well in both full sun and part shade, ideally in patchy sun, growing as an understory tree. Depending on the location, the canopy is different. In full sun, it’s broad and leafy whereas in understory locations, it has a single layer of umbrella-shaped branches. The tree does not tolerate deep shade. 

Soil

Sassafras grows well in loamy as well as sandy soil. Good soil drainage is especially important. The tree does not tolerate soggy soil.

Water

Young trees need to be watered until they are established. During the first growing season, if it doesn't rain, water the tree once or twice a week. Make sure to water it deeply so that the water reaches all the way down to the tree’s deep tap root. 

Temperature and Humidity

Sassafras is tolerant of a wide range of climate conditions, from subzero temperatures to humidity and heat. In colder climate, the tree develops a more shrub-like appearance. 

Fertilizer

Do not fertilize a newly planted tree during the first year, which can stunt its growth. In averagely fertile soil, established trees usually do not need fertilizer, but if your soil lacks nutrients, feed it with a complete fertilizer at the beginning of the growing season. 

Sassafras suckers

kj2011 / Getty Images

Pruning

If you grow sassafras as a specimen, it does not require much pruning other than removing weak branches in late winter or early spring before tree leaves out.

Sassafras stands can be pruned to give the thickets a neater appearance but it’s not essential for tree health. 

Propagating Sassafras

Because of their large taproot, sassafras is difficult to transplant. Container-grown nursery trees have the best chances of survival. 

Common Pests & Plant Diseases 

As a tree that is native to North America, sassafras is generally not affected by many pests and diseases. Two invasive pests from Asia, however, can be a problem: Japanese beetles and the redbay ambrosia beetle, which is not directly damaging the tree, but transmits laurel wilt disease, a deadly fungus, into the sapwood of the tree. When you notice that your sassafras tree is wilting and dying from the fungus, it is unfortunately already too late.

The other serious pest is the sassafras borer. The larvae bore holes in the bark of the terminal (i.e. the “head” of a tree branch) and the tips of small branches, resulting in wilting of the foliage. Young trees are especially susceptible and might die if the infestation is major. Woodpeckers might come to your rescue by eating small numbers of the larvae and pupae. For a non-chemical control measure, remove infested terminals and branches, in which the female beetles have laid their eggs. Safely dispose of the branches in the trash or destroy them to break the two-year life cycle of the borer. 

Common Problems

Sassafras prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil so if the leaves turn chlorotic, the soil might be too alkaline. The tree is also vulnerable to ice storm damage.

Sassafras has a disproportionally slender trunk that can be as thin as six to eight inches in diameter when grown as an understory tree, which makes it susceptible to wind breakage.

FAQ
  • Are sassafras easy to care for?

    Sassafras is a low-maintenance tree, drought-tolerant, and fairly pest-resistant.

  • How fast does sassafras grow?

    In the right conditions, sassafras trees can grow as much as 4 feet per year.

  • How long can sassafras live?

    Sassafras trees rarely live longer than 30 years.