Atherosperma moschatum

Black Sassafras, Southern Sassafras

Family: Atherospermataceae

A large tree, reportedly slow-growing, to around 25 m tall (to 40 m in some habitats such as in Tasmania); usually with a narrow conical habit to a few metres wide.

It has a patchy, scattered distribution in NSW, growing mainly on the coast-tablelands divide, as far north as east of Nundle (Tia Gorge / River), with a cluster in Barrington Tops National Park; then found disjunctly around Katoomba to Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains; and east of Lithgow (Mt Wilson) and slightly further north; then found down south in patches: east of Batlow, south-east of Braidwood, Kosciuszko NP (near Khancoban) and east of Nimmatabel; with a few scattered patches closer to the border with Victoria. It is common in Victoria in the far-eastern and other eastern pockets and also very common in the eastern outskirts of Melbourne. It occurs on the islands of Bass Strait and very commonly through most of Tasmania. It is also native to New Zealand. 

It is found in high-altitude rainforest temperate rainforest, often with associated species such as Nothofagus moorei on enriched volcanic or shale-derived soils.

The bark is grey to light brown, with numerous lenticels, raised bumps and ridges. 

This is the only species in the genus, with simple and opposite leaves, to 10 cm long and 2.5 cm wide, lanceolate to elliptic or oblanceolate, with margins coarsely or irregularly toothed, to entire in some populations, and with lower surfaces densely hairy; dark to mid green; strongly aromatic when crushed (leaves and twigs have a pleasant nutmeg-scent).

Flowers are 4-merous, generally with 8 or more tepal-like segments, generally unisexual with male flowers produced above female flowers; male flowers with numerous stamens, and female flowers with many carpels (up to 30); Some female flowers have infertile stamens (staminodes); produced solitarily in leaf axils; each flower about 20 mm across; white to green with purple/maroon markings (very showy) and also hairy.

The fruit produced is a cluster of achenes which emerge from the hypanthium (receptacle of flower) which splits, like a capsule, to release them; each achene to 10 mm long and hairy – dispersed by wind. 

In the garden

This is an attractive medium-sized tree for parks or large gardens, which will thrive only in cooler, shadier-sheltered and moist areas. The difficulty in satisfying these conditions makes it uncommon in cultivation.

It is best planted on an enriched and moist soil in part shade to mostly shade, where it has some room to grow. It is reportedly slow growing and could be pruned for a lengthy time to keep it a dense shrub or small tree. 

Bark, leaves and flowers are strongly scented, similar to a musky nutmeg.

It does not shed its smooth bark annually and hence is a rich host of lichen species. As well, the flowers attract insects and butterflies, the leaves providing habitat for caterpillars.

Flowers are showy in their own right. 

Plants are available commercially.

The timber is in demand for panelling, turnery, musical instruments, and other specialty work, (carvings, dishes, and boxes for tourists). The staining of the black heartwood is caused by fungus, and makes the timber markings particularly attractive.


Propagation form seed is difficult to germinate. It can be propagated by root cuttings as it suckers readily. 

Other information

There are currently two subspecies recognised in NSW: 

  • subsp. moschatum – small to medium-sized trees, to 30 m tall; adult leaf margin regularly toothed; southern part of the geographic
  • subsp. integrifolium – shrubs or small trees, to 10 m tall; adult leaf margins entire; central and northern parts of the geographic range.

This plant may be prone to fires in some habitats, especially in Victoria and Tasmania. Fire response is unknown but likely from seed. 

Atherospermathe actual publication of Labillardeiere has been consulted with the etymology of this name stated as two separate Greek words – athis and eros and then a reference to “aristata”. The word atheros (άθερος) can be found which refers to a crop of wheat not harvested and may refer to the appearance of the awns on crops such as wheat (theros means “harvest” or “harvest time”)with sperma (σπέρμα) meaning “seed” – likely referring to the awns or hairs on the achenes.

moschatum Latin meaning “musk-scented”, from the smell of the bark and foliage.

This species is not considered of be at risk of extinction in the wild. 

NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Atherosperma moschatum profile page: https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Atherosperma~moschatum

Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2013). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 6th edition. Reed New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia. page 523 for Atherosperma moschatum

Mansfield, D. (1992). Australian Rainforest Plants for Your Garden. Simon & Schuster – page 65 for Atherosperma moschatum 

Yarra Ranges Council – Local Plant Directory – Atherosperma moschatum https://www.yarraranges.vic.gov.au/PlantDirectory/Trees/Trees-5m/Atherosperma-moschatum 

By Dan Clarke and Jeff Howes.