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Native plant of the month: Sassafras albidum (Sassafras)


Gumbo weather makes us think of file’. Sassafras is a small to medium sized deciduous tree or shrub with horizontal branching in tiers. The deep brown bark is deeply furrowed. Bright green alternate leaves are multi shaped with1 to 3 lobes producing good fall color. The plant produces many clusters of yellow green flowers on the female plant producing dark blue fruits on red stalks in late summer. It is found in sandy woods, old fields, fence rows and forest edges, roadsides, disturbed wood, thickets, and on rocky soil. It forms a large taproot that resists disturbance, so plant it where you want it the first time! Root suckers allow it to spread and form a shrubby thicket or you can remove the suckers for a solitary tree. All parts of the tree are spicy and aromatic. The Louisiana French name for this plant is File’ or Gombo file’ (Holmes 1990). The leaves were used to thicken and flavor gumbo and as a tea for many ailments. The roots and twigs boiled to make a yellow-brown tonic used to thin the blood and to make root beer. However, the roots and stems contain safrole, identified as a carcinogenic substance and their use is discouraged today. Sassafras attracts birds and butterflies and is the larval host for Spicebush butterfly, Tiger swallow-tail, Palamedes butterflies and the Pale Swallowtail.

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