Sassafras in full flower near Medouie Creek. Photo D.I. O’Dell

At home colonizing old fields transitioning to woods, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) can be found around Nantucket, from the maturing forests of Squam to small, scattered stands in the Serengeti area of the Middle Moors, and miniature thicket forests in Tom Nevers, where they endure harsh winds and salt spray directly off the Atlantic.

Characteristic sassafras leaf shapes; all three shapes are typically found on most trees. Photo K.A. Omand.

Perhaps best known for its mitten shaped leaves, sassafras is a bit eccentric in that it sports three leaf types on most every tree: an egg-shaped leaf, the familiar mitten shaped leaf, and a mitten shape that appears to have grown an extra thumb (also known as the “live long and prosper” leaf shape among Star Trek fans).

Right now, sassafras stands are bursting into bloom and offering a banquet for early season insect visitors, from the honeybees raised by local beekeepers to an assortment of native bees, flies, and other pollinators. Coming into bloom as red maple (Acer rubrum) and willow (Salix spp.) begin to fade out, sassafras is an important link in the chain of early season food sources, while many wildflowers and trees are still in bud.

Sassafras is well worth experiencing up close and personal, whether you’re interested in zooming in to check out the structure of its flowers, or just in enjoying the splashes of gold in the canopy against a bright blue sky. Whatever the season, scratching a twig to remove a sliver of bark can clinch the identification, releasing a lemony scent that is sweet and complex.

As with many species of trees, sassafras individuals are typically male or female. A close look at the flowers will be necessary to tell whether a given tree is producing pollen on its golden anthers, or if there’s a pistil at the center of the flower that will be fertilized and morph into a succulent fruit later in the season.

Close-up of female sassafras flowers, with pistils in center and rudimentary stamens lacking pollen. Photo K.A. Omand.

Female (pistillate) flowers, pictured above, seem to have rudimentary spade-shaped stamens, but you can tell with a closer look that they lack pollen-filled anthers, and have a central bottle shaped structure called the pistil, where the seed forms.

Male flowers, pictured below, have fat pollen filled anthers at the tip of each stamen, and lack the central bottle shaped pistil found in the female flowers. Their pollen is a rich source of nutrition for foraging insects.

Close-up of male sassafras flowers, showing pollen filled anthers. Photo D.I. O’Dell.

Perhaps at an earlier stage in their evolution, sassafras ancestors all had perfect flowers (blooms that each contain both male and female parts) but they have adapted to specialize as male or female in most cases, although some trees may have bisexual flowers. Why all this interest in the gender reveal? If you find a female (or bisexual) tree, you can return later in the season to see it in flamboyant fruit: the flower stalks become succulent and turn red, and the fruit ripen into metallic blue egg-shaped drupes. Drupes are fruit with a fleshy outer layer and a single seed at the center, enclosed in a hard shell. Think avocado, which is another member of the Lauraceae family.

The vivid blue and red color combination attracts birds to a late summer feast and is also found in tupelo and arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) fruit. Check out this link to a webpage with more images of sassafras flowers, fruits, and leaves, along with images of its shrubby relative, spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Like tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), sassafras trees are unusually common on Nantucket compared to other parts of New England. It grows in spreading clonal stands or patches. New saplings spring up at the edges of stands from the root system, as if by magic. Young sassafras in open areas have a symmetrical branching pattern that resembles stacked umbrellas, similar to pagoda dogwood (Swida alternifolia, =Cornus alternifolia). In contrast, older specimens here on Nantucket can reach greater than a foot in diameter at breast height, with gnarled battle-scarred canopy branches and deeply furrowed “alligator” bark, pictured below on a mature tree at Windswept, near Stump Pond. Leafless sassafras and tupelo in the woodlands of Squam Swamp and Squam farm give the area a “haunted forest” feel in the dormant season, when the trees’ skeletal forms are laid bare.

Alligator-like sassafras bark on older trees, colonized by lichen. Photo K.A. Omand.
The gnarled sillhouettes of sassafras and tupelo give Nantucket’s mesic forests a spooky feel when fall and winter roll around. Photo K.A. Omand.

In the open, sassafras help give the Middle Moors area along Milestone Road the nickname “Serengeti” as their silhouettes evoke African savannahs. Unlike tupelo, sassafras are often a shorter-lived tree in forests, since they are unable to persist as other later successional trees grow taller and shade them out. As a result, sassafras are best observed along forest edges and in fields that are just filling in with woody shrubs and trees. But to see the oldest sassafras, hit the trails at Squam Swamp or Squam Farm, and keep an eye out for the golden blossoms in early May, or the foliage with three distinctive leaf shapes later in the season.

Sassafras silhouettes evoke the Serengeti along Milestone Road, giving that area of the Middle Moors its nickname. Photo: K.A. Omand.