Plant of the Week: Sassafras

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 500 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.

Sassafras albidum is a species of Sassafras native to eastern North America from the Lauraceae family. Greenish-yellow clusters of flowers bloom in the spring before the leaves open. The bright green and white leaves last throughout the summer and have three very distinctive shapes on all trees: ovate, mitten shaped and three-lobed. Bluish black drupes on scarlet stalks mature in September on the female trees. The bark is a deeply furrowed, rich mahogany color. Sassafras have outstanding red, orange, purple, pink and yellow colored leaves in the autumn. After the leaves shed, the beautiful structure of the trees upturned branches show.

Though now banned by the FDA, the oil from Sassafras tree (Safrole) was once considered a cure all and used by Native Americans in tonics for medicinal use. Safrole oil was also used in traditionally brewed root beer. Many parts of the plant are still used for soaps and culinary purposes. The Sassafras leaves are ground for filé spice - the thickening agent in gumbo. The bark can be used for lumber, tea and orange dye.


This aromatic deciduous tree is tolerant of most soils but prefers moist, loamy acidic soils. Sassafras albidum will grow in part shade to part sun. They are fairly drought and pest tolerant. Sassafras leaves, twigs, fruit and bark provide food for birds, butterflies, deer and other wildlife.


Sassafras albidum can be found in the Woodland Edge, Chelsea Thicket, Falcone Flyover and the Wildflower Field. Its native habitat is in woodlands and along road sides and fences.

Photos by Ayinde Listhrop.

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.

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