Sassafras, or Sassafras albidum

Riverview Cemetery has but one Sassafras tree in its plant collection, that being a weather-beaten specimen in Section K that is likely more than a hundred years old. A deciduous tree, Sassafras albidum is native to Eastern North America where it generally grows from 40 to 50 feet in height in its northern range. Larger specimens are found in its southern range.

Sassafras in Section K at Riverview Cemetery in summer and fall colors

Sassafras is unusual in having three distinct leaf patterns — unlobed oval, bilobed, and trilobed — on the same plant. The leaves are bright green in the summer and turn a brilliant yellow-orange and red-orange in the fall.

Richard E. Weaver Jr., in the January 1976 issue of Arnoldia, the quarterly bulletin of the Arnold Arboretum, writes “the color and the effect of the fall foliage is about as spectacular as that of any tree, the leaves typically turning orange with tints of yellow, red, and salmon, and for this reason alone the tree deserves more recognition as an ornamental.”

Sassafras albidum, a colored
plate drawn by Pancrace Bessa
and engraved by Gabriel
in North American Sylva,
published in 1819
Wikimedia Commons
A colored plate of the Sassafras’ leaf, flower, and seed, illustrated by Bessa and engraved by Gabriel, appeared in the English edition of North American Sylva, or A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia, authored by French botanist François André Michaux and published in 1819.

Michaux notes “The Sassafras, on account of its medicinal virtues, was among the first trees in America which became known to the Europeans.” Native Americans, however, had been using the tree’s leaves, roots, and bark for medicinal and practical purposes for centuries before their arrival.

While native tree species were used extensively in the earliest landscaping of the grounds and supplemented by non-native (exotic) species over the past century, Riverview Cemetery is fortunate to have this specimen of Sassafras in its plant collection.

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