One of the most interesting trees, or rather family of trees, in North America is the Sassafras. These pretty, fragrant trees are cultivated for food, to produce fragrance products, and also for decoration.
A while back, they were even used to make the essential oil that gave root beer its distinctive flavor. Not anymore, but that’s a story for another time!
Sassafras remains extremely popular today, and are something of a cultural icon. However, Sassafras trees, for all their distinctive leaves, colors and flowers, have quite a few imitator trees that you might mistake for them.
I’ll tell you about the sassafras lookalikes down below and how to recognize them…
Table of Contents
1. American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
The American Sweetgum is routinely mistaken for Sassafras due to their similar leaf shapes: Both trees feature star-shaped leaves, but there’s a quick way you can tell them apart.
Sweetgum leaves typically have five pointed lobes, while Sassafras leaves can be mitten-shaped or have three lobes, though different species are variable.
Another distinction is in its fruits: The American Sweetgum produces unique, spiky round fruits, colloquially called gumballs, which are quite distinct from the blue-black berries of the Sassafras.
You might also spot cork-like growths on its smaller twigs which are never seen in Sassafras trees.
And like the Sassafras, the American Sweetgum is a valuable forest tree native to the southeastern United States. It’s likewise a popular ornamental tree in temperate climates.
Large-growing and often found near wetlands and by rivers, and occasionally on drier lands, its glossy green leaves in summer turn into typically beautiful fall colors, often showing multiple hues on a single tree.
The Sweetgum is not dangerous, but you had better watch out the fallen, spiky fruits of the tree; though incapable of penetrating footwear, they will do a number on bare feet or paws!
That’s a “cherished” memory many children from my part of the country can tell you all about!
2. Red Mulberry (Morus rubia)
Red Mulberry, Morus rubia, is another American native, and well-known around the country. A medium-sized tree that thrives in well-drained soil, and it’s often seen in forests and especially on slopes.
The Red Mulberry is sometimes confused with Sassafras due to its variable leaf shapes.
But major difference between Red Mulberry and Sassafras is in their fruits: Red Mulberry produces sweet, juicy, dark purple berries while Sassafras bears smaller, dark blue berries on red stalks.
And back to those leaves for a moment… Sometimes, the leaves on a Red Mulberry tree can somewhat resemble the broad shape of Sassafras leaves.
But unlike Sassafras, whose leaves can have one, two, or three lobes, Red Mulberry leaves are generally unlobed.
And also like Sassafras, Red Mulberry is a useful tree indeed. Its wood was historically used to make everything from fence posts to furniture due to its durability, and it’s also a safe tree unless you’re allergic to its pollen.
3. Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
A fast-growing tree hardwood tree native to Eastern North America, Black Locust is known for being hardy and growing well even in middling soil. And it grows tall, topping out anywhere between 40 to 100 feet high!
You might confuse the Black Locust for a Sassafras once again due to its leaves, as both species have pinnately compound leaves, but the leaflets of Black Locust are smaller and more numerous, with a rounded base and tip.
The Black Locust also produces clusters of fragrant white flowers in spring, which is a stark contrast to the small, inconspicuous yellow-green flowers of the Sassafras.
You can expect to find these trees in the edges of woodlands and along streams, but they’re also commonly spotted growing all alone in wasteland.
Black locust bark is also highly distinct, deeply furrowed and rough and quite different from the smoother bark of the Sassafras.
Black Locust wood is highly valued for its hardness, rot resistance, and high heating value, but keep in mind that all parts of the Black Locust, except for its flowers, are toxic if ingested.
Some folks also show significant sensitivity to contact with the bark, sap and leaves.
4. White Mulberry (Morus alba)
Another mulberry tree, at first glance, you might mistake the White Mulberry (Morus alba) for a Sassafras because of leaves, but even cursory inspection will show the difference once you get a bit closer.
Unlike Sassafras, which has three variations of its leaf shapes, White Mulberry leaves are invariably heart-shaped with tight, evenly toothed edges.
The bark of the White Mulberry is smooth and pale gray (sometimes called silver), which sets it apart from the darker and comparatively rougher Sassafras tree.
The White Mulberry is native to China and India, but is presently cultivated around the world and it has gone native, or perhaps rogue, in many temperate regions.
A medium-sized tree, White Mulberry likes well-drained soil and lots of sun. You can also spot White Mulberry by its sweet, edible white or pink berries, a stark contrast to the small, dark blue berries of the Sassafras family.
Like its red cousin above, the White Mulberry is generally safe but its pollen can cause allergic reactions in some people.
5. Northern Spicebush (Linder benzoic)
If you’re roaming the forests or swamps of the Eastern US, you might stumble upon the Northern Spicebush.
This shrub grows anywhere from 6 to 15 feet tall, with glossy leaves and graceful, slender, light green branches. It is most known for its spicy, fragrant leaves and stems, lending the plant its name.
When crushed or pressed, the foliage emits a pleasant aroma that reminds most folks of kitchen spices.
The plant is also recognized by its fragrant yellow-green flowers that bloom in early spring, even before the leaves emerge sometimes!
This is quite different from the Sassafras, which has small yellow-green flowers that aren’t as noticeable and nowhere near as fragrant.
Another distinguishing feature is that the Northern Spicebush tends to grow in clumps through root sprouting, unlike the Sassafras tree.
The Northern Spicebush is safe and edible, commonly being made into herbal tea or having its leaves and sometimes blooms dried and ground as an allspice substitute.
6. Texas Mulberry (Morus microphylla)
If you are out scoping for Sassafras in Texas or northern Mexico, you may instead encounter the Texas Mulberry.
Yet another mulberry tree on our list, it may once again be confused with the Sassafras family because of the bark and overall size.
The Texas Mulberry is a small tree or shrub that typically grows between 10 to 15 feet high, though large examples top 25 feet.
This mulberry is often used in landscaping for its attractive form, ease of care, and tolerance to drought, making it especially common in urban and suburban areas.
As said, you can easily tell these trees apart by the bark: the Texas Mulberry is rougher and grayish in color, differing from the relatively smoother and dark bark of the Sassafras.
The berries of the tree are another point of confusion, though developmental clues can help you. Unlike the Sassafras tree, which has small, dark blue berries, the Texas Mulberry produces berries that turn from red to black when ripe.
The Texas Mulberry is another generally safe tree, though the berries have been known to cause indigestion when eaten to excess.
And, like many plants, it can cause allergic reactions in some sensitive people, so it’s always best to approach and handle with care unless you know for sure…
7. Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera)
Native to Asia, the Paper Mulberry, or Broussonetia papyrifera, is a fast-growing deciduous tree that can reach a height of about 45 feet.
It typically thrives in thickets and mountain ravines but has been introduced worldwide as an ornamental shade tree due to its rapid growth.
Since, it has gotten free of containment and is growing wild here and there.
The Paper Mulberry has a highly distinctive feature that sets it apart from the Sassafras when you get close: its twigs are hairy and reddish-brown, unlike the smooth, green twigs of the Sassafras.
The confusion might result once again due to the leaves: Paper Mulberry leaves can be distinctly lobed, similar to the Sassafras, but they often show a more serrated edge.
If you couldn’t guess from the name alone, the Paper Mulberry has a long and storied historical use in paper making, particularly in its original native lands.
The inner bark yields a fiber suitable for creating paper. The Paper Mulberry is not harmful in general, but the milky sap that can cause skin irritation, so take care when pruning or harvesting.
Tim is a farm boy with vast experience on homesteads, and with survival and prepping. He lives a self-reliant lifestyle along with his aging mother in a quiet and very conservative little town in Ohio. He teaches folks about security, prepping and self-sufficiency not just through his witty writing, but also in person.
Find out more about Tim and the rest of the crew here.