Sassafras is an aromatic roadside beauty


Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

When I was little, I was always fascinated by the leaves of Sassafras.  The mitten shapes reminded me of those I wore in winter months in Ohio.  It always seemed peculiar that they would be the same shape.  Now I know there are actually three leaf shapes, one lobe, two lobes (double mittens) and a third with three lobes.  And then there are right and left mitten shapes.   The percentage of each shapes varies from one tree to another.  

This native tree is officially named Sassafras albidum which is found only in North America and eastern Asia. It is one of the few plants whose generic name and common name are the same.  Pines, Rhododendron and Gingko are other examples.  There are only three species of Sassafras world-wide.  Sassafras is a derivation of a Spanish word meaning medicinal, albidum I think means white referring to its interior wood color. 

Sassafras is a tree that can grow from 40-50 feet tall.  It is usually found at the woods edge as it needs bright high shade to grow. It reproduces by underground runners and from seeds.  All parts of this tree are fragrant, slightly citrus like. Its orange-brown bark is creased with horizontal ridges.  Handsome clusters (racemes) of small yellow flowers develop in late March and April before the leaves open.  There are separate male and female plants, thus it is dioecious.  The blooms are slightly fragrant.  A dark blue fruit with red stems, called a drupe, forms on the female tree.  A drupe has a central seed with a fleshy outer coat.  A cherry is another drupe example.  Birds and deer use this as an occasional food source.   It is one of the host plants for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. This tree is found from Maine to Florida, west to Michigan to Texas.

Historically, all parts of this tree have been used by humans for culinary and medicinal purposes.  Most commonly, Sassafras roots were harvested to make root beer and tea.  However, in 1960 the FDA banned its use because a major ingredient in Sassafras oil safrole was found to be a weak carcinogen.  Root beer is no longer made from a sassafras extract.  Safrole is also found in very low amounts in camphor, nutmeg and mace.

What is puzzling is that parts of the Sassafras tree are still used for culinary purposes. Ground dry leaves are used in Creole cooking as a thickener and as a flavoring agent called file.  Apparently, the amount of safrole in file is at a very low level to almost non-existent.  That is not the case for Sassafras tea.  However, the evidence about the harmful effects of Sassafras tea is not conclusive.  Mixed with maple sap or maple syrup it was drunk as a spring tonic.

Native Americans have multiple uses for this plant.  Leaves were rubbed on wounds, it was used for the treatment of high fevers, tooth aches, rheumatism and many more ailments.  It was also added to other medicines to improve flavors.

The Pennsylvania Dutch used it as a natural warm brown paint dye.

Sassafras wood has been used for ship building and furniture making.  Twigs were used as a tooth brush.

This is an exceptional tree in all seasons, small yellow slightly fragrant flowers, dark blue fruit with red stems, interesting bright green leaves in the summer and brilliant yellow, red, purple and orange fall foliage and red-brown bark.  Unfortunately, is not a plant that is usually commercially available.   It would make a great addition to a native plant garden.  Looking online I found several mail order nurseries that offer small plants for sale and others that have seeds that can be purchased.  It is not recommended to attempt to transplant a mature tree from the woods as there is a low survival rate.  Small shoots transplant easier.  What an accomplishment it would be to grow your own tree from seed.

The challenge this spring will be to see how many blooming Sassafras you can find.  They are there; you just have to be thinking about them to notice.  Karen’s [Lawrence] wonderful photos should help.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is cofounder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a professional photographer of botanical subjects and wildlife is from Franklin, N.C.