686 Sassafras albidumCommon Names: sassafras Family: Lauraceae (laurel Family)
Sassafras is an attractive deciduous tree that potentially can reach more than 80 ft (24.4 m) in height, but typically is only 20-30 ft (6.1-9.1 m) tall. It has a rather slender, pyramidal shape, with horizontal branches in distinct tiers. Sassafras sometimes forms shrubby thickets by root suckering. This long lived tree begins flowering while still quite small. Sassafras saplings have smooth, orange-brown bark but the trunk becomes deeply furrowed in larger trees. The 2-6 in ( cm) leaves are peculiar in that they are variable in shape, even on a single plant. Some leaves are elliptic, some are oval, and some are lobed with one, two or three lobes. The 3 lobed leaves are symmetrical, and the single-lobed leaves look like left and right handed mittens. The flowers open before the leaves in early spring. They are small and greenish yellow, and give way to fleshy dark blue drupes about a 0.5 in (1.3 cm) in diameter. In autumn the leaves turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. All parts of sassafras are aromatic, smelling like root beer.
Sassafras, Sassafras albidum, occurs from SW Maine to Iowa and SE Kansas, southward to Texas and central Florida. It grows in mesic hardwood forests, dry open woods, fence rows, abandoned fields, and disturbed areas. Sassafras has been cultivated in Europe for medicinal and flavoring uses since the Spaniards brought it from Florida in the 1500's.
CultureEasy to grow in dry, sandy soils. Light: Prefers partial shade to full sun. Moisture: Established plants are drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. Propagation: Propagated from seeds which should be sown in fall and allowed to overwinter outdoors. Sassafras, with the help of obliging birds, seeds itself prolifically. It is difficult to transplant sassafras since it has a very long tap root.
Sassafras is a good small tree for the natural woodland or native plant landscape. It naturalizes readily. There's a constant supply of seedlings in my yard, and I pull those that have the impertinence to grow in the wrong place, and let others stay until they get too big to suit me. Sassafras grows fast. In a good, sunny spot, sassafras can grow 4 ft (1.2 m) tall the first year and 15 ft (4.6 m) in four years.
The flowers, which are among the earliest in spring, are very popular with honey bees and other insects. Songbirds devour the fruits as fast as they ripen. Sassafras (along with other members of the laurel family) is the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. Sassafras foliage brightens the landscape with yellows, oranges and reds in autumn, and the winter silhouette is appealing with its horizontal branches in tiered layers.
Native Americans everywhere within its range used sassafras extensively for many purposes. Infusions were used to kill parasitic worms, to treat syphilis, colds and measles, to reduce fever, control diarrhea, and relieve constipation. The Cherokee, Choctaw and Chippewa made tea from the bark and roots and used the dried leaves as a spice to flavor foods. Early European settlers quickly adopted sassafras tea.
The inner bark, especially that from the roots, was once an important commercial product. It was one of the first products exported from the New World to Europe. Oil of sassafras extracted from sassafras root bark was used as a food flavoring and was the basis of root beer, a popular non-alcoholic drink. Filè powder, made from the ground, dried leaves of sassafras, is still used as a condiment and soup thickener in gumbo and other Cajun dishes. You can make your own filè by drying very young leaves, then grinding them in a coffee or spice mill.
Use of sassafras oil has caused abortion in pregnant women. Research in the 1960's showed that safrole, a principal constituent of oil of sassafras, caused liver cancer in mice, and the US Food and Drug Administration outlawed the sale of flavorings (including oil of sassafras) containing it. Today's root beer is made with synthetic flavorings or oil of sassafras from which the safrole has been removed. Apparently filè powder does not contain enough safrole to be dangerous, and it is available commercially.
Steve Christman 2/4/00; updated 3/23/02, 9/26/03, 9/7/04, 9/27/06