Sassafras Tree (Sassafras albidum) Quick Facts:
Host plant to the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly
Native to eastern US
Hardy in USDA zones 4 – 9
Partial sun in first years of growth
Medium moist soil
Tree height 30-60 feet
Cross pollination is needed to produce fruit
Plant Sassafras Trees for Spicebush Swallowtail Butterflies
Swallowtails Seek Out Sassafras Trees
The Sassafras tree is a host plant for several butterflies of the Swallowtail persuasion–primarily the Spicebush, however the Tiger, Pale, and Palamedes varieties can lay eggs on the tree’s leaves in a pinch. And what a lovely host plant it is!
Every bit of the tree is intriguingly fragrant with a citrusy, cinnamon scent. You’d expect the frilly yellow blooms that grace the branches for about three weeks in early spring to perfume the air, of course, but the leaves, bark, and roots have a pleasing scent as well. If you’re familiar with root beer, you’ll recognize the distinctive smell of the Sassafras–its roots provide the flavor for the soda.
Swallowtail larvae love to munch Sassafras leaves, but they also will use the leaves to help them avoid predators. When the caterpillars are especially young, they will wrap themselves in leaves that they secure around their bodies with tiny strands of silk. They spend daytime hours in their leafy rolls, hidden from avian eyes. The larvae emerge to feed in the night, when the birds are asleep.
Sassafras leaves have one lobe, two lobes, or none; and each tree will grow a mix of all the possible leaf shapes. The single-lobed specimens look very much like mittens, and inspired the plant’s nickname of “Mitten Tree.” The green leaves change color to brighten fall days with a glorious display of vibrant yellow, red, orange, and maroon.
Tree or Shrub; One or Several?
The Sassafras needs at least four hours of direct sun each day, and will grow in any loose, moist soil–although it prefers a rich, well-drained, acidic loam. It grows relatively quickly (12-24 inches per year) and spreads through root suckers. When growing in the wild–look for it along fences, at the edges of woods, or in fields–the tree will frequently form large colonies through root spreading. It’s very easy to remove developing shoots in order to grow only one large tree, or to allow a selected few to mature to establish a grove of Sassafras trees. When a multitude of root suckers are undisturbed, the result can have the appearance of a large shrub.
A Showy Tree for Swallowtail Showoffs!
The Spicebush Swallowtail will choose a Sassafras Tree for a host plant as often as she chooses an actual Spicebush shrub, and these two plants are by far the most favored plants for Spicebush Swallowtail egg deposits. Like all Swallowtail butterflies, the Spicebush Swallowtail continues to flutter its large wings (3- to 4-inch span) in an eye-catching display while feeding. Unlike other Swallowtails, the Spicebush flies at a relatively low altitude–making it easier to observe, and to photograph!
Swallowtails are known for elaborate courtship dances and for puddling behavior (read more about puddling here), and are certainly among the most entertaining of the butterflies! Order your Sassafras tree today and set the stage for your own Garden Swallowtail Show!