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Root beer tree at the Gardens (Sassafras albidum)


Any tree lover who's spent time in the Eastern woodlands knows Sassafras: it is an abundant tree, often in cleared fields. I know of only two specimens in Colorado, both in Denver Botanic Gardens' new Sensory Garden. I have admired them for years, sad that every autumn  they turned pale yellow instead of the brilliant reds and oranges they prefer to don in the eastern United States...until this year, that is. I was stunned to see that after twenty years, our sassafras are taking on tawny and reddish tints: hooray! Of course, the new Sensory Garden is being actively built around these trees--perhaps they thought they'd better perform or perish?

Sassafras foliage closeup

One of the many features I love about Sassafras is how the leaves can be entire, or lobed with one or two fingers (the variability is visible on the closeup above). And I love the spicy, almost Allspice scent that was once used to flavor root beer and various medicinal potions. Like many of our street trees, an ancestor closely resembling our species occurred in the West tens of millions of years ago: so in the long view, it is even perhaps a native plant! It has two oriental cousins in Western China and Taiwan. It seems to me this small tree has great potential in local gardens.

The fall color on a hundred or more kinds of trees and shrubs throughout Denver Botanic Gardens is really stunning right now, but hurry up...frost is predicted tonight, and winter will be here all too soon (and last all too long!). The growing season culminates in a few brilliant weeks of fiery color. Why not take an afternoon off and come revel in it?!



Ellen Hertzman
One caveat, however, to viewing this tree up close: The new Sensory Garden is still under construction, and the sassafras is, at this writing, behind the construction barricade.
Panayoti Kelaidis
Wow, Susan! I wish I had known: sounds like you have a better clone than us. If those seeds germinate, I will be first in line... Jan and I are in Southern California right now: I'm gazing out at the Pacific from a Starbucks at Golden Cove in Palos Verdes Estates (tough life!)... Have a great Christmas: let's get together in January, OK? All the best, PK
Susan Spaulding
Two other sassafras trees can be found in Boulder County: one in the mobile home park at the corner of 19th and Violet, and one in my garden in Louisville. Both of these trees have a common genesis: the owner of the mobile home and my husband come from Michigan, where they spent summers at Stony Lake on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan and where they grew to love the sassarfras/white pine/oak forests. Both of the Boulder County trees were transplanted from Stony Lake. Both were planted at no more than one foot in height, and both are now large. The sassafras in my garden, planted seven years ago, is now 20' tall and assuming a dominant presence. It's tiered branching now spreads as wide as it is tall and protects the solomon's seal, hostas and may apples at its feet. This year, it was a stunning neon orange for three weeks in October. My sister-in-law, just back from a leaf viewing tour of Vermont and New Hampshire, said our sassafras outdid anything she saw in New England. We have tried to propogate from seeds off the tree in Boulder, without success, but are planting more seeds, gathered more timely, this year. Yes, sassafras I believe could be an excellent addition to our plant palette.
Linda Tyrrell
Can I buy a root beer/sassafras tree from somewhere? I'm trying to plant trees, shrubs and plants that are fragrant. Thanks to anyone who can help.
Panayoti Kelaidis
I have never seen Sassafras sold locally. There are many mail order sources, however: check Forest Farm nursery in Oregon to start. It is well worth growing!

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