Sassafras Trees for Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Moths

Sassafras albidum glowing in the sunshine.
Sassafras albidum glowing in the sunshine. Photo by Donna L. Long

The Sassafras tree is covered with brilliant leaves in reds, oranges, and golds.

With the shortening of daylight, photosynthesis has stopped. The tree has stopped making chlorophyll and the other pigments that were always present are now able to show themselves. The red, orange, and yellow colors are a result of certain chemicals present in the leaves. (See Why Do Leaves Change Color).

Sassafras leaves (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras leaves (Sassafras albidum). Photo by Donna L. Long.

The leaves come in three slight variations of un-lobed or lobed on one or two sides. The lobed leaves look like mittens. The leaves range in size from 2 1/2 to 6 inches long on the same tree.

Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Moths

We humans like the brilliant fall color and birds like the fleshy blue fruits on bright red stalks. The seeds are disbursed by birds (See The Relationship Between Birds. Berries, and Fruit)

The fruit is produced only on female trees.

This tree beside my community garden plot doesn’t have fruit so I guess it is a male.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Photo by Donna L. Long

Not only will the birds like the trees for nesting or fruit but so will butterflies and moths. The sassafras is a known host plant for Tiger and Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies and several moths. The Sassafras is the hostplant of  Promethea, Imperial, Palamedes, Io, and Silk moths. The Butterly and moth larvae eat the fleshy leaves.

The tree’s small size and fleshy blue fruit make it a good choice for attracting birds, butterflies, and moths to your backyard or garden.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Photo by Donna L. Long

Growing Sassafras in Your Backyard or Garden

The Sassafras tree is indigenous to Eastern North America. It ranges from Vermont and New Hampshire to northern Florida and west to Missouri and eastern Texas.

And for some reason it’s not found in northern New York state or Pennsylvania.  It can be found growing naturally in fencerows, forest edges or along roadsides. Where it chooses to grow naturally tells us how to grow it in gardens.

Since Sassafras likes forest edges that means it needs sun and not deep shade you find in a mature forest with a closed canopy. So find a sunny spot for it. The tree is intolerant of road salts. So, hellstrips in sidewalks and along roadsides that receive winter salt are not good places for it.

Once established it will adapt to most soils. It can tolerate from sandy to silty clay soils with hardpan. But apparently the plant does not transplant well. It seems because of this nurseries may not carry it.  But some nursery somewhere does. Supplying young Sassafras grown from seed is a good opportunity for small-scale home-based plant nurseries.

Closeup leaves of Sassafras
Closeup of Sassafras albidum leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long


But if you would like to grow this plan in your back yard habitat or garden you can become your on “plant hunter”. You can start a tree from seeds planted outdoors in the fall of the year. Or you can buy one from a nursery. The tree spread through its prolific ability to form root shoots.And there is always propagation by cuttings.

Sassafras doesn’t suffer from serious insect or disease problems. And the wood is resistant to decay. The wood is aromatic and rot resistant.All parts of the tree have a spicy aromatic scent. The tree has long been used by North American indigenous peoples and others for its medicinal qualities. The plant’s active ingredient safole,  has been found to be carcinogenic. So investigate throughly before taking or using the plant for medicinal or eating purposes. See the article on Sloan Kettering Medical Center website

Sassafras albidum tree – orange wood underneath the bark. Photo by Donna L. Long.

If you scrape away a little of the bark on a Sassafras tree, the wood underneath has an orange tinge.

Sassafras albidum leaves
Sassafras albidum leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long

Sassafras Facts

Name: Sassafras albidum

Form: medium sized, upright tree up to 60 feet tall

Grow requirements: full sun, part sun; moist to moderately dry soil.

Leaves: alternate with oval-shaped un-lobed leaves or one or two lobed leaves all on same tree

Flowers: Blooms in the spring, yellow-green fragrant flowers which open before the leaves. Plants are unisexual with all female or male on a tree. You would need one male and and female achieve pollination and fruiting.

Pollinators: insects

Seeds: spread by birds

Hostplant for : Swallowtail butterflies (Tiger and Spicebush) and Moth species Promethea, Imperial, Palamedes, Io, and Silk.

Sassafras is such a beautiful tree, I hope more gardeners grow it in the future.

More resources on the Sassafras Tree 

“Sassafras” Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center

“Sassafras albidum” USDA Plant Database

Native American Ethnobotany Database

Related Posts

Leaf Colors of Common Trees Here in the Oak-Hickory Forest

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly – Life Cycle

The Relationship Between Birds. Berries, and Fruit

Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

Butterflies and Moths: Information and Links

native fruits for birds (pdf)

Why Native Plants? 

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