It was fairly common in the wild when I was growing up in the Midwest, and its red roots and polymorphic leaves of one, two, and three lobes all on one tree made it distinctive. But the tree is rather rare where I’m now living.
It does, however, play into my Quaking Dover story, as I’ll explain.
Here are ten things of note about sassafras.
- Found in the eastern North America and East Asia, the tree can grow to somewhere between 60 to 100 feet in height (the maximum keeps growing in the versions I’m encountering), though I associate it mostly with shrubs in the forest undergrowth. For others, it was seen as an aggressive plant quickly cluttering old fields.
- Traditionally, it was famed as spring tonic in the form of tea boiled from its dark red, aromatic roots, although the leaves and bark can also be used. More recent research cautions not taking it for more than a week, and it was pulled from commercial markets after experiments in 1960 found that safrole, a compound prominent in its volatile oils, caused liver cancer in rats and mice.
- Commercial oils used today in foods, cosmetics, and soaps are safrole-free and safe for consumption.
- Root beer, a popular soft drink, was traditionally made from sassafras roots, often cooked with molasses. Charles Elmer Hires, the first to successfully market the brew, was a teetotaler who wanted to call his extract “root tea” but found it sold better among Pennsylvania miners as “root beer.” And, for the record, it was long used to brew a backwoods beer.
- French Acadians relocating to Louisiana discovered its spice qualities from the Native Choctaws. Its dried lemony-scent leaves are ground to create filé powder, a green aromatic dust that thickens Cajun gumbos or is later sprinkled atop the dish.
- Its blue berries on red stems, forming early in the fall foliage season, provide a high-energy food for migratory birds on their long southward flight. The birds are attracted to the color.
- The tree’s leaves turn a spectacular variety of purple, orange, yellow, and red. That alone earns it consideration in landscape design.
- The straight-grained, durable wood was commonly used to make horse-drawn sleighs, though the runners were usually hickory, a harder substance. Sassafras has also been popular in making buckets, cabinets, cradles and other furnature, woodwork, and even utensils such as spoons.
- Native Americans valued sassafras in a range of medicinal uses, including a poultice for open wounds. Fascinated by the applications, Europeans soon attributed the exotic plant with supernatural qualities, including the retardation of age, making sassafras a rival to tobacco in importance as an export from America.
- How medicinal? It was the reason 23-year-old Captain Martin Pring, in 1603, became the first European to lead an exploration of the Piscataqua River. Sassafras was valued as a cure for the French pox, which you may recognize as the name the English and others called what we refer to as syphilis. (If only it had actually worked.) Failing to find many of the trees in today’s Dover and vicinity, he sailed on to encamp at Truro on Cape Cod, where he indeed harvested sassafras but was interrupted when his rude behavior greatly upset the Natives, making for one of the first sour episodes in English relations with the New World locals.