I moved to the Ozarks when I was nine years old and one of the first plants I learned about was the Sassafras tree. My mother dug up a bit of the root and let me smell it. I carried it around for a while and probably kept it in my treasures for years. It amazed me that such a simple looking tree could make such a great smell.
Indeed, historically, Sassafras albidum has been harvested for an extract made from the roots. The extract was used in flavoring traditional root beer but has now been banned by the FDA as it’s connected with cancer.
The Sassafras tree is one of the first to bloom in the spring. Before the leaves come out, it produces clusters of bright chartreuse flowers on the tips of its branches. It grows as both an understory tree in the forest with the big trees and also it’s quite common along fence rows and roadsides. Make sure to distinguish between Sassafras and Spicebush, a small shrub which also produces bright yellow flower clusters.
The leaves are interesting as they have several common shapes. Think of the leaves as three forms, right mitten, left mitten, double-thumbed mitten, and sock. The leaves are a bit fragrant if you crush them, but the smell is more citrusy than the roots which have a deep root beer fragrance.
Botanically speaking, the Sassafras tree has some interesting features. For that I’ll refer you to the entry in Wikipedia. There’s also a nice article Sassafras tree on the Missouri Department of Conservation website.