Garden Photo of the Day

There must be a word for this

Click here to enlarge this photo.
Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais

What is it called when a plant has three different leaf shapes at once? I can’t figure it out, but that’s what going on with sassafras (Sassafras albidum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8). Sassafras is an eastern North American native tree that grows in full sun or partial shade and moist, well-drained, preferably fertile, slightly acidic soil. It’s the traditional source of file powder, which was used to thicken cajun gumbo, and sassafras is the traditional flavoring for root beer, though most root beers are flavored with artificial sassafras flavorings these days, since a major component of sassafras oil is now considered a carcinogen. I have fond memories of sassafras trees in the woods where I grew up in Virginia. I would always break off a twig and sniff its refreshing scent as I walked. Now I’ve read that sassafras can be used as an effective mosquito repellent. I should have been rubbing the twigs and leaves on my arms and legs!

I’m still stumped by the three-leaf-shape thing. Do you know a name for this characteristic, or know of another plant that has more than one leaf shape on the same plant? I’d love to know. Comment below!

Click here to enlarge this photo.
Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais



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  1. glennt 12/16/2010


  2. glennt 12/16/2010

    mulberries and paper mulberries

  3. Maureen_in_Chicago 12/16/2010

    English Ivy (Hedera helix) also has different leaf shapes. Young leaves are three lobed while older leaves are not lobed at all.

  4. rwotzak 12/16/2010

    I know it's a little off the topic, but does anyone plant sassafras, perhaps in a woodland garden? I've seen it in every natural patch of woods I've ever been in, except the patch behind my house. I would love to change that.

  5. MichelleGervais 12/16/2010

    rwotzak, here'a a source for small trees:

    They also have it at that twilight zone nursery we visited last year...

  6. MichelleGervais 12/16/2010

    ah-HA! Thanks, glennt!!

  7. sheilaschultz 12/16/2010

    This photo would be great blown up into poster size!

  8. LSost 12/17/2010

    The three-shaped sassafras leaves are simply called "variable"! That's as scientific as it gets.

    Rwotzak: I am growing a small grove of sassafras from container plants (they are hard to establish) and several are now 6 feet high, but I lost a lot at transplant too. Sparkly bright orange fall color.. really nice. I am keeping my small sassafras plants limbed up and removing all suckers so they'll be tree-like and not shrubby. A forest grove of sassafras is beautiful. If you can get them to take, they grow fast, but be prepared for losses.

    Here's my post on sassafras

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