Native Plant Profile: Amelanchier

I could probably talk about Amelanchier until my voice gave out (at least an hour!). It’s such a great multi-season plant in the garden, and brings so much value to wildlife, as well. It’s also a great example of how native plants convey a “sense of place” that is not imparted by conventional, non-native plants in the garden.

Although the Genus is distributed across the Northern hemisphere, the greatest diversity is found in North America. As you can see from the BONAP distribution map, Amelanchier diversity is the greatest in the Northeast. New York State hosts 14 species, varieties, natural hybrids, and subspecies. And New York City is home to 6 of those.

2013 BONAP North American Plant Atlas. TaxonMaps - Amelanchier

Amelanchier in my garden

Amelanchier was one of the key plants I included in my backyard native plant garden design in 2009. To fit my design, I needed a tree form with a single trunk and broad canopy.

Final rendering, backyard garden design

Most of the species grow as multi-stemmed twiggy shrubs. In my design, I specified A. arborea, the only species that would normally grow with a single trunk. But straight species are difficult to find in the horticultural trade. Even nurseries specializing in native plants are unlikely to carry this species. I would likely need to find a “standard”: a plant grown with a single trunk that normally wouldn’t.

In Spring of 2010, I went hunting for a specimen for my garden. I found one at Chelsea Garden Center on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It was the second most expensive single plant I’ve ever bought. But worth it!

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

What I found is Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’, a selection of a horticultural hybrid of two species: A. arborea and A. laevis. So arborea is in there somewhere! This cultivar was selected for its vividly colored autumn foliage. But any of the species will have beautiful fall color.

The new serviceberry, planted and mulched, May 2010

Their peak bloom in our area is just weeks away, before the ornamental cherries, and the dreaded callery pear. We’ll follow the seasons, starting with where we are right now, Winter.


This is Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’ in my backyard, as viewed from a bathroom window, after our January snowstorm.

Amelanchier in snow in my backyard, January 2022

Winter into Spring. Here’s a lengthening and expanding bud on my backyard Amelanchier, which I shared last week. It still looks like this. These terminal buds will become the flowers.

Detail, buds, *Amelanchier* 'Autumn Brilliance', serviceberry, shadblow, in my backyard, February 2022

Bud break. The emerging inflorescence is covered in dense silvery hairs, which offer protection from late frosts. The leaves will emerge later from separate buds along the stems.

Flower Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'


The big show is coming soon! It’s the first woody plant to bloom in my garden, early April or even late March in warm Springs. Two common names refer to its bloom time. Shadblow, because it would bloom when the shad are running. And serviceberry, because it bloomed when the ground had thawed enough to bury winter’s dead.

Over the next few weeks, these distinctive furry flower buds continue to expand.

Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

As they mature, the inflorescences start to turn more upright and the pedicels lengthen. The whole tree turns a little less furry and fuzzy.

Flower Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'
Flower Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

Finally, the buds start to open, revealing the bright creamy white of the petals. At this stage, they almost look like flowering peas.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'
Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

When the flowers are fully open, they reveal their true nature. Amelanchier is in the Rosaceae, the rose family. Here you can clearly see the five-fold symmetry of rose relatives. At this stage, the leaves just start to emerge.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'
Morning Glory: Amelanchier still shy of full bloom in my urban backyard native plant garden

In full bloom they are spectacular and conspicuous in the landscape. This is when you are most likely to notice them, if you haven’t been stalking their progress all along, as I might do. Even at highway speeds, they are recognizable when flowering. There’s a line of them along the McDonald Avenue border of Green-Wood Cemetery. My commuter bus drove down this road on the return trip from Manhattan. I would sit on the right side of the bus to soak them in.

Garden hybrid Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance' blooming in the backyard, April 2020

NYC is home to many bee species — especially mining bees, Andrenidae — that specialize in flowers of the Rosaceae. Most of our bees are solitary bees, and many of them nest in the ground. They are only active and visible for a month or so, as the females prepare new ground nests and provision their eggs with pollen balls. The rest of the year, the larvae and pupae are underground, slowly maturing, or aestivating through the winter, waiting for next year’s Spring.


Juneberry is descriptive: Berries ripen in the summer, typically June. Ripening berries on my backyard Amelanchier in 2011. They turn dark reddish purple when ripe, but good luck getting to them before the birds and squirrels. Technicaly edible, this cultivar’s fruit are mealy and seedy, better left for wildlife. Other species are used for making jams, or enjoyed right off the bush.


When we first bought our house, our next-door neighbors had an old, failing apple tree in their backyard, next to our shared fence. The fruit never ripened. Monk parakeets loved to munch on the apples.

They were also visited by cedar waxwings, another bird I had never seen before They seemed to love picking insects off the flowers in spring, presumably to feed to their young, as much as they enjoyed the fruits in summer. After our neighbors had their tree taken down, we rarely saw the monk parakeets, except when they flew overhead. And we never saw the waxwings again. I hoped another Rosaceae would bring them back.

This intent has been successful.

Cedar waxwing in my Amelanchier, juneberry, June 2018

The berries are enjoyed by many different birds in my backyard.

Catbird in my Amelanchier, juneberry, June 2018Zonotrichia albicollis, white-throated sparrow, in my backyard Amelanchier, serviceberry, April 2020
Turdus migratorius, American robin, juvenile, in Amelanchier, serviceberry, in my backyard, June 2019Turdus migratorius, American robin, in my backyard Amelanchier, January 2021


Amelanchier‘s autumn foliage is brilliant, after all. This is from its second Fall in my garden, a year and a half after planting.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance', Serviceberry

This is from November 2014, four years after planting.

Morning Glory: Amelanchier/Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance' leaves peak in my urban backyard native plant garden/habitat

Related Content

Twitter: #WildflowerHourNYC Twitter thread, 2022-03-09

Related blog posts:

Flickr, photo album: Planting a Tree


Wikipedia: Amelanchier
BONAP North American Plant Atlas, county-level species Genus distribution maps: Amelanchier
MOBOT Plant Finder: Amelanchier
NC State University Plant Toolbox: Amelanchier
Plants for a Future

Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States, Jarrod Fowler

Native Plant Profile: Adlumia fungosa, allegheny vine, climbing fumitory

A species new to me that I picked up at yesterday’s plant sale for the Manhattan Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society (MCNARGS). Since I don’t know anything about it, I researched it to figure out what it wants and find a place for it in my garden.

Adlumia fungosa, climbing fumitory, scrambling into Clethra in the backyard in July 2015

Adlumia fungosa is a biennial vine in the Fumariaceae, the fumewort family, or Papaveraceae, poppy family, depending on the accepted taxonomy. It can grow up to 12 feet in length by scrambling over other plants and rocks in the moist, wooded slopes it requires. Common names include allegheny vine, climbing fumitory, and mountain fringe.

Its primary native range is New England and northeastern United States. Following the mountains, its range extends as far south and west as Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s also found in scattered counties as far west as Minnesota and Iowa.

Biota of North America Program (BONAP) floristic synthesis county-level distribution map for Adlumia fungosa. In this map, yellow and light green highlights counties where specimens have been recorded. Dark green shows state-/province-level nativity.

Although not native to New York City, it is native to adjacent and nearby counties in NY, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The New York Flora Association (NYFA) Atlas lists its endangered/threatened status as as S4: Apparently secure in New York State. Other sources, including the New England Wildflower Society (NEWFS), list it as threatened or endangered throughout its range.

I’m going to try this plant on the north side of my garage. That area is consistently moist from runoff from the garage roof. There’s no slope there, but it’s densely planted with shrubs and perennials, so this plant should have lots to scramble over. If it’s really happy, there’s also the nearby arbor.

Related Content


Native Plant Profile: Amelanchier x grandiflora

Jump to How to Plant a Tree.

Today I planted Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’, Apple Serviceberry, in my backyard native plant garden.

I chose my backyard as my final class project for Urban Garden Design at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden last year. Serviceberry is one of the two key plants I specified for my planting scheme. Serviceberries are multi-season plants. They bloom in early Spring, before the flowering cherries. The berries ripen in mid-summer; they are edible and tasty, and attractive to birds. Fall color is excellent. Branching structure and bark provide winter interest.

Here are the initial sketch and final design for the project. The Amelanchier is the second smallest circle on the left (north) of the plan. In this design for an urban woodland garden, the Serviceberry plays the role of an understory tree. The larger circle on the right is Sassafras albidum, the canopy tree, which is proving even more difficult to source than the Amelanchier.

Sketch of backyard garden design
Final rendering, backyard garden design

Here’s how the north bed looked this afternoon, before planting the tree. The large shrub is Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’, Arrowwood, which I transplanted here last Spring.
Site for the new tree

The Serviceberries hybridize readily in the wild. Although I specified A. arborea, A. canadensis, or A. laevis in my plant list, the species have proven difficult to locate. A. x grandiflora is a horticultural hybrid of my preferred species – sources disagree on whether it’s between A. arborea or A. canadensis and A. laevis – so this is a good alternative. Serviceberries are in the Rosaceae, the Rose Family, and so are subject to the same diseases as more conventional fruit trees such as apples. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is a cultivar selected for its fall foliage and disease resistance.

Serviceberries sucker readily. Their growth is usually shrubby. even the larger species typically grow as trees with multiple trunks, but they can be trained to a single trunk. I went looking for such specimens on Thursday. I found two at Chelsea Garden Center in Red Hook. One was already tagged as sold. I bought this one.
Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

It’s deceptively small-looking in the photo. That’s a 15-gallon container. Once I got it into the backyard, I had some appreciation for the task I’d set for myself. Here it is set on the wagon I used to wheel it into the backyard.

How to plant a tree

When planting a tree, it’s important not to plant it deeper than it was grown. I measured the depth of the container, and used that as a guide; since the soil level in the container is two inches down from the edge, I took two inches off the height of the container. You can also just take marks against your planting tools. I made final adjustments of depth with the tree in the hole: starting high, then gently tipping the tree and taking out just one shovelful at a time until the top of the roots were just above their original depth.

I also measured the width of the container. Normally, the width is not important: you can dig two or three times wider than the width of the roots, the wider the better. But I was planting into tight quarters – an already planted bed – and didn’t want to have to remove more soil than I needed to. Also, I worked this soil last Spring, when I built out the bed, so I didn’t need to dig a wider hole this time around.
Depth: 15"
Width: 17"
Planting hole scored to width

Before I tucked the tree in, I took the opportunity to prune out any broken or crossing branches. It doesn’t affect the look of the tree, and reduces later problems. This is easier to do with the tree on its side than upright. I have a pole pruner to use as the tree gets bigger.

Before Pruning

After. See? It doesn’t look any different.
After Pruning

The final challenge: getting the tree to and into the hole without destroying the other plantings. For this, I setup a wide board as a ramp to slide the root ball over the other plants.
Ramp setup

Fortunately, just at this moment, Blog Widow returned home, and a neighbor stopped by. We made quick work of getting the tree in, with little damage to the other plants.

Mature size is 15-25′ high and wide. This will provide critical late day shade for the wildflowers and ferns planted in this bed. I could already see the difference today. Birds will be attracted to the fruit, which ripen before those of the existing Viburnum and Ilex verticillata. With early bloom and excellent fall color, this tree will anchor the garden in all seasons, and help define the space. This is the single most costly plant I’ve ever purchased. It’s one of the best investments I’ve made in the garden.


Related Content

Photos of the day
Viburnum dentatum, Arrowwood, 2009-04-20
Woodland Garden Design Plant List , 2009-02-18



NC State University
Plants for a Future

Asimina triloba, PawPaw

2010.08.30: Added information about BBG’s 2010 Signature Plants source, Blossom Nursery.
2010.02.08: More on the Staten Island Pawpaws.

Asimina triloba, Common Pawpaw, is a native fruit true in the Annonaceae, the Custard-Apple Family. The Pawpaw fruit can be up to 12cm/5″ long, the largest fruit native to the U.S. Its taste is likened to a combination of banana and mango, or papaya. Two plants are needed for pollination.

Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA.

Pawpaw is the common name for plants in the genus Asimina, with several species native to  eastern North America. A. triloba has the most northern range by far of the genus, reaching into New York, and even southern Ontario, and west to Nebraska. This wide range is attributed to cultivation and distribution by Native American people, including the Cherokee and Iroquois.

Asimina triloba Distribution Map. Credit: eFloras, Flora of North America

Locally, its status is threatened in New York, and endangered in New Jersey. It’s hard to tell from the NY map, but it has been found on Staten Island, New York City. More on this below.

New York counties distribution map. Credit: USDA PLANTS

Pawpaw grows as a large shrub or small understory tree, maturing to about 25′ tall in 20 years, rarely to 30-40′. Pawpaw is prone to spreading by suckering, sending up new stems and trunks from the roots, to form a thicket. This tendency decreases as the plant ages, so removing the suckers while the plant is young will promote a single trunk.
Leaves turn yellow in the fall, but don’t last long.

This is the exclusive food plant for the Zebra Swallowtail, Eurytides marcellus, butterfly. The caterpillars eat the leaves and form cocoons on the tree. Plant a tree, grow butterflies! It’s also the larval host for the Pawpaw sphinx moth, Dolba hyloeus.

I’ve had this post in draft for over a year. This year, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers Pawpaw among its Signature Plant selections, prompting me to dust this off and publish it. Here’s what they say about it:

Though native to the eastern U.S., this smallish tree’s luxuriant large green leaves add a tropical appearance to the landscape in summer and turn an attractive yellow in fall as the plump, kidney-shaped edible fruit ripen. Interesting-looking purplish flowers form at leaf axils before the leaves emerge in spring. Given ample sunlight, the tree will grow in a pyramidal shape; in the understory, it is multistemmed and tends to sucker. Pawpaw prefers moist but well-drained fertile soils. Two trees come with this offering to assure pollination for fruit set.

I’ve already started asking my closest neighbors to adopt a Pawpaw!

Blossom Nursery

Since it’s so unusual in commerce, I was curious about the source of the plants. I contacted BBG, and they got a reply from their source, Mark Blossom of Blossom Nursery:

Those Pawpaw trees were grown from seed which were collected in the
Regional Variety Trials Orchard at Kentucky State University, Frankfurt. They have as female parent one of the named cultivars in that collection.

I believe that they are likely to do well in NY, since the Pawpaw cultivars in that collection mostly originated in the North East, and from Maryland to Ohio.

These are the trees which I offer as “Superior Seedlings.”

The Staten Island Pawpaws

I noted in the NY County distribution map above that Pawpaws can be found in Staten Island. (For my non-NYC readers, Staten Island, aka Richmond County, is one of the five boroughs, or counties, of New York City.) Mariellé Anzelone, Executive Director and Founder of NYC Wildflower Week, alerted me in a tweet that the population on Staten Island is “from a historical planting.” That got me curious to know more, and we followed up by email:

A. triloba is more a native to the midwest. As such it’s found rarely in western NY state. It isn’t native to the rest of the state. The population in Staten Island is horticultural. Apparently sometime in the early 1900s the property owner was sent seed from relatives in Indiana. This is the resultant colony and it seems to be doing well. It does produce fruit. It’s a resident in the forest – it’s found on a rolling slope that leads out to a freshwater wetland close to the South Shore.

A 1992 article in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club described the population.



Wikipedia: Asimina triloba, Pawpaw, Annonaceae

NYMF: New York Metropolitan Flora Project, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

eFlora: Flora of North America

UCONN, University of Connecticut Plant Database

Superior Seedlings, Blossom Nursery
Pawpaw Program, Kentucky State University

Pomper, K.W., D.R. Layne, and R.N. Peterson. 1999. The pawpaw regional variety trial. p. 353–357. In: J. Janick (ed.), Perspectives on new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Wildflowers in a Flatbush Backyard

Last week was NYC Wildflower Week. Appropriately, here are some wildflowers blooming over the past week in my backyard native plant garden.

Wildflowers blooming near the gardener’s nook in my backyard for last May’s Garden Blogging Bloom Day.
Part of the Native Plant Garden

  • Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern Columbine
  • Chrysogonum virginianum ‘Allen Bush’, Green-and-Gold
  • Dicentra eximia ‘Aurora’, White-flowering Eastern Bleeding-Heart, Turkey Corn
  • Iris cristata, Crested Iris
  • Phlox stolonifera
  • Viola striata
  • Zizia aurea, Golden Alexanders
  • Brunnera macrophylla, Large-leaf Brunnera, Siberian Bugloss

Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern Red Columbine

Somehow, I have no photos of this from my garden in Flickr. Yet it’s been a favorite of mine for decades.

Native range is eastern North America. Widespread in New York state. Native to all five boroughs of NYC.

Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern Red Columbine, 2006-05-31


Chrysogonum virginianum ‘Allen Bush’, Green-and-Gold

Chrysogonum virginianum

A great groundcover for partial shade. Several cultivars are available. To my eye, all vary only slightly from the species, though I haven’t grown them side-by-side.

Individual flowers look like shaggy sunflowers.

Chrysogonum virginianum

Native range is Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States. Native to only one New York upstate county. Not native to NYC.


Dicentra eximia ‘Aurora’, Eastern Bleeding-Heart, Turkey Corn

Dicentra eximia 'Aurora'

A white-flowering cultivar of the native Eastern Bleeding Heart. Not every white-flowering form of a plant is successful. This is one that is equally lovely as the species, bringing its own graces to the structure of the inflorescence and individual flowers. Also a good choice for the shady white garden.

This plant is maybe three years old now. Not only has the original plant spread in size each year, this Spring I’ve noticed little seedlings cropping up around the mother plant. I’ll be curious to see how these develop, and what the flower color wil be in the children.

Dicentra eximia, Bleeding-heart, 2006-05-22
Dicentra eximia, Eastern bleeding-heart (Flickr photo set)


Iris cristata, Crested Iris

Iris cristata

Really beautiful, if a bit of a finicky grower. It seems to be at its best when grown on a slight slope with ample mulch. The stems trail through the mulch, the fans oriented down-slope. Sulks during the summer. Needs consistent moisture during the hot summer months and good drainage during the winter or it will disappear. Where it’s happy, it makes a great groundcover.

Native to Mid-Atlantic and interior Eastern United States, but not New York.


Phlox stolonifera, Creeping Phlox

Phlox stolonifera

One of the best wildflower ground covers you can grow in the garden. In the trade, you’re more likely to find cultivars selected for flower color – such as ‘Bruce’s White’ and ‘Sherwood Purple’ – rather than the unqualified species. They all seem equally fine to me. (Mine is also a cultivar, but its name escapes me at the moment.) The flowers are usually fragrant, reminiscent of grape jelly.

Native range is most of Eastern United States, but only found in two upstate New York counties, not NYC.


Viola striata, Pale Violet, Striped Cream Violet

Viola striata

The “oldest” plant in this post, this population came from my second city garden on 5th Street in Park Slope. The original plants were given to me 8-10 years ago by a gay couple who lived across the street. They have a beautiful shady backyard garden growing many wildflowers collected from their home in upstate New York.

Native to Eastern North America. Native to several counties in New York, but not NYC.


Zizia aurea, Golden Alexanders

Zizea aurea

This plant is a recent discovery for me. I had never heard of it before picking it up from Gowanus Nursery last Spring. Now I see it all over the place, and it’s a fine groundcover. You can’t see it in this photo, but the foliage is also handsome.

Native to NYC, but not Brooklyn.


Brunnera macrophylla, Large-leaf Brunnera, Siberian Bugloss

Brunnera macrophylla

Okay, Brunnera is not a native wildflower on this continent – it’s native range is Eastern Europe – but it is blooming in the backyard and it’s so pretty I had to take a picture of it. This plant is a refugee from the sideyard of Frank, a neighbor, professional gardener and fellow garden blogger at New York City Garden.



Related Content

Growing a Native Plant Garden in a Flatbush Backyard, August 6, 2007

Viburnum dentatum, Arrowwood

When we moved to our new home in Flatbush four years ago, my garden moved with me. Rather, the plants from my garden. All were planted hurriedly, with the intent of moving them “later in the season.” In some cases, “later” has become four years later. Case in point: Viburnum dentatum, Southern Arrowwood. (Some botanists recognize a separate species, V. recognitum, Northern Arrowwood, for variants with smooth twigs.)

Viburnum dentatum, before transplant

Very handsome, but not what I thought I had acquired. This individual was supposed to be V. dentatum ‘Christom’ (Blue Muffin®), a dwarf cultivar reaching 4-5 feet in height and 3-4 feet in breadth. (The species is highly variable, height can range from 3 feet up to a maximum of 15 feet.) It’s now over 6-1/2 feet high and has extended across the narrow concrete path at its feet. So I can be forgiven some poor planning on my part that the plant has far exceeded its expected bounds.

I needed to move it from this location because it was blocking the path. However, in this location it was doing an excellent job of screening some “necessaries”: cans and bins for garbage, recycling, and composting. And that suggested I could solve two problems at once by transplanting it to the backyard to screen the gardener’s nook from the street.

Folks walking by on the sidewalk get a straight view into this corner of the backyard. I want this to be an intimate, sheltered location.
View to gardener's corner

When I did the garden design for my backyard, I doubled the depth of the bed along the north edge of the property, visible on the left of the photo above and the plan below.
Final rendering, backyard garden design

Earlier this season, I executed that part of the plan. On the right, the gardener’s nook is located where the deck will extend to accommodate a bench, as shown on the upper left of the plan above.
Gardener's corner

I transplanted the Viburnum to roughly the location indicated by the shrub marked “L” in the plan. I had specified Lindera benzoin, which I don’t have, for that location, but the Arrowwood should do as well there. You can see that it does a great job of screening the view, even though it hasn’t fully leafed out yet. During the summer, the nook will now be completely shielded from the street.
View to gardener's corner, after transplant

It also dramatically changes the character of the space. Compare these before and after shots. The backyard now has a sense of enclosure it didn’t have before, even within the parts of the backyard that are not visible from the street. This validates a key strategy of the design: enclosing the space with shrubs to create the feeling of being in a woodland garden.

Before transplant, lateral view

After transplant

Related Content

Woodland Garden Design Plant List, 2009-02-18

Native Plant Profiles


Viburnum dentatum

Connecticut Botanical Society

V. dentatum ‘Christom’


Propagation of Sassafras albidum (Sassafras)

Propagation of Sassafras albidum (Sassafras)

General characteristics

Sassafras albidum, Sassafras, is a medium-sized deciduous tree in the Lauraceae, the Laurel family. This is a family of mostly pantropical, evergreen shrubs and trees; Sassafras has the most northern distribution of the Lauraceae.

Native range and habitat

Sassafras is widespread in eastern North America, from Maine to Ontario and Michigan, south to Florida and eastern Texas. It’s most common as a successional plant in disturbed areas.

Because of its wide natural range, select a local ecotype, or acquire from a local nursery, for best adaptation to your conditions.

Asexual/vegetative propagation

Sassafras can form pure stands through suckering. Specimens propagated by apparent transplantation from the field may actually be suckers separated from a parent plant or stand. These progeny are prone to suckering from lateral roots. To minimize this, do not transplant from the wild. Plant only container-grown seedlings. [Cullina, DIRR1997, Flint]

Propagation from root cuttings is possible.

Sexual propagation

Plants are dioecious.

Flowering and Pollination

Clusters of flowers with bright yellow sepals appear in early Spring, just before the leaf buds break. Flowers are pollinated by bees and flies.


Fruit are produced every year or two after the plant reaches maturity at about ten years of age. Fruit matures in the Fall. The fruit is an oil-rich, oval, blue-black drupe held on a red stem. Sassafras fruits are eaten by many species of birds.

Seeds may be gathered when fruits turn dark blue. Cleaned seeds may be stored for up to two years at cool temperatures. 120 Stratification – prechilling – for 120 days is required for germination. [USDA]


Cullina, William. Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines. 2002. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN-13: 978-0-618-09858-3
[DIRR1997] Dirr, Michael. Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs. 1997. Timber Press. ISBN-13: 978-0-88192-404-6
[DIRR1998] Dirr, Michael. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Revised 1998. Stipes Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-0-87563-795-2
Flint, Harrison. Landscape Plants for Eastern North America. 1983. Wiley. ISBN: 0-471-86905-8
Sullivan, Janet (1993). “Sassafras albidum“. Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory


Missouri Botanical Garden
Plants For A Future
University of Connecticut

Sassafras albidum, Sassafras

Sassafras albidum, Sassafras, is a medium-sized deciduous tree native to eastern North America. It’s easily identified by its leaves which vary in shape from simple (unlobed) and elliptical, asymmetrically two-lobed (left- or right-handed “mittens”), and three-lobed.

Two forms of Sassafras leaves. Photo: Patrick Coin (Flickr)

Several features of Sassafras led me to select it as the focal point for my backyard garden design planting plan. Although I’ve lived in the Northeast most of my life, it’s only in the past several years that I’ve come to really appreciate Sassafras. I now recognize it as a four-season plant.

In early Spring, before anything leafs out, the clouds of brilliant yellow flowers stand out; both male and female flowers are colorful. Summer foliage is handsome and aromatic. On female plants, the fruit is colorful and attractive, and the red stems persist after the fruit has been devoured by birds. Fall color is among the best there is; it should be part of any fall garden that has the space for it. For winter interest, the bark of older specimens develops interesting textures, while the forms of the bare branches seem to flail chaotically, expressive of wilderness.

Sassafras albidum, typical autumn coloration. Photo: dogtooth77 (Flickr)

Sassafras is in the Lauraceae, the Laurel family. This is a family of mostly pantropical, evergreen shrubs and trees; Sassafras has the most northern distribution of the Lauraceae. Many plants in this family are rich in essential oils, and thus of economic importance; Cinnamon, Bay Laurel and Avocado are also in this family. Sassafras roots were once used to flavor root beer, until concerns about the carcinogenic properties of safrole led to banning its use. Sassafras leaves are still used to make the spice gumbo filé.

All parts of Sassafras are aromatic, including its leaves. It’s an important larval host for several Lepidoptera. It’s the primary larval host for Papilio troilus, spicebush swallowtail, P. palamedes, laurel swallowtail, and Callosamia promethea, Promethea silkmoth.

Flowers are pollinated by bees and flies. Sassafras fruits are eaten by many species of birds. However, plants are dioecious, so both male and female plants are needed within pollinator range. Even if I was lucky enough to get a female plant, the closest other plants I’m aware of are in Prospect Park, a half-mile away. I’m not counting on fruit from my Sassafras, but it would be a terrific bonus.

From my observations, it’s very common in the sandy soils along the New Jersey coast. It’s most common as a successional plant in disturbed areas, where it can form pure stands through suckering. There’s been some research to indicate that Sassafras exhibits allelopathy, interfering with the germination of some other woody species, at least.

A tendency toward suckering and a reputation for difficulty in transplantation have limited its application in cultivation. However, several authors suggest that propagation methods may influence this. Specimens propagated by apparent transplantation from the field may actually be suckers being separated from a parent plant or stand. The thought is that this increases the chance for suckering later, after transplantation. Even true individuals have deep taproots, making transplantation difficult. This obstacle can be eliminated with pot-grown, seed-propagated individuals. I’m on the lookout for a retail source in the NYC area.


Botanical name: Sassafras albidum
Family: Lauraceae (Laurel Family)
Common name: Sassafras
Description: Deciduous tree.
Range: Widespread in eastern North America, from Maine to Ontario and Michigan, south to Florida and eastern Texas.


Flowers: Bright yellow clusters of flowers appear before leaves in early Spring. Dioecious: both male and female plants needed for fruiting.
Foliage: Multiple shapes, brilliant fall colors, one of the best for fall foliage.
Fruits: (On female plants) Oil-rich, blue-black berries on long bright red stalks.
Bark: Smooth when young, interesting, deeply furrowed, “alligator-hide bark” [Cullina] on older trees.


Height: 8m/26ft after 20 years [Flint], 30-60 feet at maturity
Width: 25-40 feet at maturity
DBH: 3 feet at maturity

Hardiness zones: 4-8
Exposure: Full sun preferred, but tolerates some shade as an understory tree.
Water: Drought-tolerant

Longevity: The Arnold Arboretum has a specimen that they acquired in 1884, over 120 years ago.

  • Because of its wide natural range, select a local ecotype, or acquire from a local nursery, for best adaptation and performance to your conditions.
  • Can be prone to suckering from lateral roots. To minimize this, do not transplant from the wild. Plant only container-grown seedlings. [Cullina, DIRR1997, Flint]
  • Not readily available commercially, but is carried by nurseries specializing in native plants.
  • Dioecious, so an individual planting may be male or female, and both are needed to produce fruit on the females.
  • Allelopathic.

Wildlife value

Birds: Oil-rich fruit on female plants are favored by migrating birds. [Cullina] Species include catbirds, flickers, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, and mockingbirds.
Butterflies and Moths: Primary larval host for Papilio troilus, spicebush swallowtail, P. palamedes, laurel swallowtail [Cullina, NPIN], and Callosamia promethea, Promethea silkmoth [NPIN, BONA], Cecropia species [BBG]
Pollinators: Sassafras is pollinated by bees and flies.



[BONA] Butterflies and Moths of North America
Cullina, William. Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines. 2002. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN-13: 978-0-618-09858-3
[DIRR1997] Dirr, Michael. Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs. 1997. Timber Press. ISBN-13: 978-0-88192-404-6
[DIRR1998] Dirr, Michael. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Revised 1998. Stipes Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-0-87563-795-2
Flint, Harrison. Landscape Plants for Eastern North America. 1983. Wiley. ISBN: 0-471-86905-8

Sullivan, Janet (1993). “Sassafras albidum“. Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory


Missouri Botanical Garden
Plants For A Future
University of Connecticut

Dicentra eximia, Eastern Bleeding-heart

Dicentra eximia, Wild Bleeding-heart, Eastern Bleeding-heart, in the Native Flora Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Dicentra eximia, Bleeding-Heart, Native Flora Garden, BBG

I first grew this plant in Garden #1 in the East Village. It was extremely long-blooming, blooming for months in the partial shade of the widlflower garden there. It forms a large clump over time. The ferny foliage is very effective and interesting when the plant is not in bloom.

This plant is probably NOT native to New York City. The NYFA Atlas notes:

The native status of this plant is questionable. It is clearly planted and escaping in various areas. Some of the populations on Staten Island, and possibly elsewhere in southeastern New York, appear in “natural” areas. These may represent native populations, or they may be escapes from nearby residential developments.


Related Content

Flickr photo set


NYFA Atlas: Plant ID 1531
USDA PLANTS Database: Symbol DIEX

Liatris spicata, Dense Blazing Star

Liatris spicata, Dense Blazing Star, Marsh Blazing Star, Dense Gayfeather

You gotta love a plant called “Gay Feather”!

I first grew Liatris in Garden #1 in the East Village. It grew well even in the partial shade of that garden. The tall purple spikes were effective for a couple of weeks, and always drew comments from visitors.

Note that both the NYFA Atlas and USA PLANTS maps for this species show scattered distribution among New York counties, and only in Queens within New York City. NYFA Atlas list this species as NOT native to New York state.


NYFA Atlas: Plant ID 258
USDA PLANTS Database: Symbol LISP