By Emma Roth, Nature Educator

We are in the throes of summer camp at Audubon Community Nature Center. As such, I have been spending a lot of my time outdoors. The past two weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to work with our two specialty camps: Into the Woods, where we took five 13 and 14-year old campers on their first backpacking adventure, and Teen Treks, where we took day trips to explore the natural areas around us.

In both these camps, Sassafras trees kept grabbing my attention. I have been familiar with this tree for some time, but recently gained a new appreciation for it. This medium-sized tree is native to Eastern North America and very common in the area. It is also an important part of the ecosystem. The leaves and twigs are a source of food for White-tailed Deer throughout the year, and Sassafras is a host plant for Promethea Moth caterpillars, a large silk moth that is native to the region.

As I’ve said, I’ve been familiar with Sassafras for quite some time. It is one of the easiest trees for me to identify by leaf shape. Unlike most other trees, Sassafras grows three distinctly shaped types of leaves: an oval, a mitten with a thumb, and what I call the “ghost” which has a large central lobe, and two smaller lobes coming off the sides.

Sassafras Leaves by Kerry Wixted

The other easily identifiable feature of this tree is its smell. When you scratch a twig and remove the outer layer of bark, or rip up a leaf, a surprisingly strong smell is released. It’s a pleasant smell, very citrusy. I find it smells almost exactly like Froot Loops cereal.

I love “scratch and sniff” plants that seem unassuming at the surface, but if you crush a leaf or scratch their bark, a strong odor is released. When taking students and campers for walks around Audubon, I am often asked what the huge leaves in our wetlands are from. I grab a leaf, break the stem, and have the kids smell it. Usually, they are rather disgusted, as this plant is aptly named Skunk Cabbage. The strong smell is actually useful to the plant, attracting pollinators such as flies, that are drawn in by the smell of rotting meat.

Students’ reactions to the Sassafras tree are a bit more positive. The pleasant smell is one kids enjoy (although sometimes it takes some convincing to get them to smell it, especially if they have recently experienced the odiferous skunk cabbage). When asked what it smells like, reactions range from orange, to sugar, to Kool-Aid, to Gatorade. All are usually fruity, sweet associations.

I have known for quite some time that Sassafras trees can be used to make tea but had never tried it myself. That changed a few weeks ago during Audubon’s backpacking camp. As part of the preparation, the campers were learning how to use camp stoves. We needed something to test on the stoves and happened to be near a Sassafras tree. Usually, the roots of the tree are used to make tea, but as that seemed like a bit too much work, we opted for making tea out of the stems and leaves.

I was a bit skeptical as we prepared the tea. I love the smell of Sassafras but was worried the tea would end up tasting as nothing more than hot plant water. We ripped up some leaves, shredded some stems, and added them to a pot with water to boil.

As the water got hot, we removed the lid to check on our concoction. As soon as we did this, we were hit with a wave of steam and the smell of Froot Loops filled the air. It was amazing. As this was a rather warm July day, we set the tea aside to cool a bit before we tried it. The smell of it filled the small Adirondack shelter we were stationed in.

The tea was delicious. It tasted like it smelled: sweet and fruity. I am not usually a tea drinker and have never really enjoyed the taste of standard teas, but this was something else. The sweet smell of the steam combined with the flavor was truly enjoyable.

It is in these moments that nature continues to surprise me. The campers were all surprised as well. It seemed that something that tasted so good should have been much more work to make. I don’t know much about wild edible plants, and it always feels like such an intimidating subject with little room for error, but now I know Sassafras, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it for years to come.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.