Plant of the Week: Sassafras

Photo by Phil VachonSassafras albidum's clusters of chartreuse flowers add bright color along the High Line. Photo by Phil Vachon

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

Up and down the High Line, the sassafras trees are blooming. They are easy to miss among the other flowering trees along the High Line – the white serviceberries and magenta eastern redbuds – but the sassafras are beautiful in their own right. Open clusters of chartreuse flowers perch atop twigs that turn up at the ends, giving these small trees the appearance of candelabra growing up out of the High Line’s planting beds. Soon, fuzzy leaves will emerge from between the blooms and by June they will be fully dressed in their distinct, mitten-shaped leaves. The leaves of Sassafras albidum actually come in three different shapes: oval, mitten, and three-lobed, all growing on the same plant, making it easy to identify among its neighbors in open woodlands and at woodland edges.

This small tree, native to the eastern half of the United States, has a rich ethnobotanical history. At one time, early in the 17th century, it was one of this country’s largest exports. Its essential oil, distilled from the roots or bark, contains safrole, which was once used in cosmetics and medicines and as a primary ingredient in traditionally brewed root beer. However, the FDA banned the extract for use in commercially produced products in 1960, after it was found to be carcinogenic. A spice made of dried, ground sassafras leaves – which do not contain safrole – is known as filé powder and used as a flavoring and thickener in creole and Cajun-style cooking. Filé is such an essential seasoning in gumbo, jambalaya, and other Cajun dishes that Emile Zatarain (who, incidentally, began his Zatarain’s food product empire by marketing root beer made with sassafras extract) has been attributed with saying, “it’s a sin to eat to gumbo without filé.”

WHERE TO SEE THIS PLANT
On the High Line between Gansevoort Street and West 14th Street, and between West 20th Street and West 30th Street

Download our April Bloom Guide.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects — become a member of Friends of the High Line today!

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