A sassafras albidum was the final native tree addition for my front yard. It's was also my second attempt at planting it. I didn't realize how difficult it was to dig up this 'volunteer' plant that uses a taproot instead of the typical root ball. During my first transplant attempt I tried to move a 5 foot tall sassafras. It had developed a taproot that ran horizontally, just a few inches under the ground. Unfortunately, I ended up cutting too close to the taproot and occasionally clipping it with my shovel. I was also unaware of how fine the feeder roots were that came off the main taproot. By the time I finished, I only had a main taproot, about 5 feet long, that ran perpendicular to the trunk of the tree. There were no visible feeder roots. And what put the final nail in its coffin was I didn't keep the taproot covered and moisten. A few days after re-planting it, the leaves began dying and falling off.
My second attempt yielded better results (hopefully). This time I set my sights a little lower and asked B if I could take a smaller sassafras from her yard. The target was a 2-3 foot tree that had tried to grow up in the middle of her dilapidated garden shed. I noticed it last week but I thought it was too damaged. But this week, upon re-examination, it looks like it could be a better candidate if I could just be more careful during it's removal.
Using a shovel and my bare hands, I worked farther out from the base of the tap root. The root extended in two horizontal directions away from the trunk of the tree. I used the shovel to break ground a foot away from the year old tree, and then I crumbled the dirt slowly by hand until I located the tiny secondary roots coming off the taproot. It took quite a bit longer but since the root ran so shallow under the ground it was easy to trace.
After I excavated the taproot without breaking it, I placed it in a 5 gal bucket with some dirt and plenty of water. Keep in mind, the taproot ended up being about 6 feet long while the actual tree was only around 2 1/2 feet tall. I took it to my yard shortly thereafter and redug the trench where my original attempt (murderous act) had taken place. I spiraled the taproot around the trench and added soil. Now all that's left is to keep it watered and keep my fingers crossed.
I've planted almost all native trees in the front yard, except for the smoke tree bushes. (To summarize- Eastern redbud, river birch, flowering dogwood, and now the sassafras.) If that don't satisfy local birds and critters, than they've got a problem.
If you're attempting to transplant a larger sassafras than you may want to review this instructions from ehow.com.