|Sassafras, an Interesting Genus
According to the Living Collection, Quarryhill has nine specimens of Sassafras tzumu, and one each of S. albidum and S. randaiense. These three species comprise all the living members of the genus Sassafras, so we have a complete collection of the genus except for one extinct species.
S. albidum is native to Eastern North America, while S. tzumu and S. randaiense are found in Eastern Asia, with S. randaiense confined to Taiwan.
All parts of the tree are aromatic due to essential oils. The leaves, stems, bark, roots and root bark have all been used for medicinal and culinary purposes by American Indians, early American settlers, Europeans, and others. The genus belongs to the Lauraceae family, which contains many other aromatic trees like the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), and the California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), and many others. All of these species produce essential oils, meaning a fragrant essence of the plant, not that the oil is indispensable in some way.
S. albidum is dioecious, with small yellow male and female flowers on separate trees. The Asian species have male and female flowers on the same plant, which makes insect pollination easier. Seeds are spread by birds, which find the fruit attractive.
The male flower is on the left, female on the right.
The Asian plants also have a higher proportion of three-lobed leaves than S. albidum, but all species have one-, two- and three-lobed, generally ovate leaves. All species prefer open forest areas and can grow to 100 feet tall under favorable conditions. Unlike many other species in the Lauraceae family that are usually evergreen, the Sassafras genus is deciduous.
As early as the 1560s, French visitors to North America discovered the medicinal qualities of sassafras, which was also exploited by the Spanish who arrived in Florida. English settlers at Roanoke reported surviving on boiled sassafras leaves and dog meat during times of starvation.
Upon the arrival of the English on the Eastern coast of North America, sassafras trees were reported as plentiful. Sassafras was sold in England and in continental Europe, where it was sold as a dark beverage called "saloop" that had medicinal qualities and used as a medicinal cure for a variety of ailments.
The discovery of sassafras occurred at the same time as a severe syphilis outbreak in Europe. Little was then understood about this terrible disease, and sassafras was touted as a cure.
During a brief period in the early 17th century, sassafras was the second-largest export from the British colonies in North America behind tobacco. The gathering of sassafras bark brought European settlers and Native Americans into contact, sometimes dangerous to both groups. Sassafras was such a desired commodity in England that its importation was included in the Charter of the Colony of Virginia in 1610.
Medicinal and culinary uses
The essential oil in highest concentration in Sassafras is safrole. It occurs in all parts of the plant, with high concentrations in the roots. While root beer was made from Sassafras in early settler days, it was probably to make the ingestion of safrole more palatable since it was used as a patent medicine for treating many kinds of ailments as mentioned above. Root beer today in the USA, and since its beginnings in other countries where it is called sarsaparilla, is made from Sarsaparilla, a tropical vine, Smilex ornate, or from artificial flavorings.
The Choctaw Indians used the dried ground up leaves as a flavoring for stews, and this compound, called file powder, became incorporated into Creole cooking and became a component of gumbo.
The genus Sassafras: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sassafras
Sassafras albidum: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sassafras_albidum
“A Modern Herbal”: www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/sassaf20.html
Sassafras albidum (Nutt-USDA Forest Service) www.na.fs.fed.us/.../sassafras/albidum.htm