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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: The Long History of Sassafras Albidum

Issue No. 153 - February 27, 2005
by Sue Sweeney

At first glance, our native northern Sassafras (Sassafras albidum ) appears pretty much like any other rough-barked small tree or shrub. If you look closely, (Sassafras albidum) does have variably-shaped leaves that look like green suede in summer and that light the world with flame colors in autumn, and candelabra-like slender branches that look good all winter. Ever year or two, the female trees have a nice crop of pea-sized, bright blue berries on equally bright red stems. Then, of course, there are the fat green and red buds that sometimes look like onion domes before they bust into early season sprays of delicate yellow-green flowers.
picture: (Sassafras albidum) fall color, Morgan Street Stamford CT 2004
However, there’s so much to tell about this American native that two issues are required. This one covers the history of (Sassafras albidum) and another issue will cover botany, identification and culture. The story starts back when dinosaurs were running around loose. Origin of Sassafras Albidum and Kin: Some 80 or so million years ago, when a good part of the earth was warm and moist, the Lauraceae (Laurel) family was going great guns. There are reports that, in North America alone, fossils have been found for at least 25 Lauraceae clan members. Our (Sassafras albidum) is one of only three surviving species of the subdivision of Lauraceae known as the genus “Sassafras”. So you’d think, that with no close kin except two first cousins in Asia, our Sassafras albidum would be unique in the plant world or at least lonely, but it’s not. Through the greater Lauraceae family, Sassafras albidum has lots of kin at home and abroad.

(Sassafras albidum’s) famous Lauraceae cousins include the cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) of India and Sri Lanka, the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) of China and Japan, the avocado (Persea americana) which hails from Southern Mexico, and sweet bay (Laurus nobilis), the popular seasoning leaf which is also the laurel that crowned old-time Greek and Roman heroes.

In North America, the Lauraceae family includes the west coast’s California bay (Umbellularia californica), the southeast’s red bay (Persea borbonia), and the northeast’s spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a wonderful hardy understory shrub; the bark of which is sometimes used as a substitute for the Caribbean’s allspice (Pimenta dioica)(Myrtle family).

picture: young (Sassafras albidum) competing for space with other denizens of distributed soil at the edge of a parking lot, Morgan Street Stamford CT 2004
Commercial History: (Sassafras albidum) has been called North America’s “only native spice”. However, there’s no single definition of what’s a “spice” as opposed to an “herb”, and we definitely have plenty of the latter in North America. Further, whatever a “spice” is, there are other “spices” in North America. One of them is the northern spicebush mentioned above. More accurate, I think, is to say that (Sassafras albidum) is the only North American native plant which, at one time, was major commercial competition for the well-known tropical and southern-hemisphere spices.

How it all is supposed to have happened: Internet sources (which may or may not be accurate but are often cross-derived and, therefore, are often at least mercifully consistent) have it that Europeans exploring North America in the early 1500’s (probably the Spanish in Florida?) observed the medicinal use of (Sassafras albidum) by Native Americans, but thought that the plant was the East Indian cinnamon tree. This is understandable because, at the time, they thought that they were in India. Whatever, Sir Walter Raleigh, a one-time favorite of Queen Elizabeth I who was later executed for treason, is said to have created a major stir when he brought (Sassafras albidum) back to England from the “Virginia Colony”, in the very early 1600’s.

Europeans got the idea that (Sassafras albidum) was a “wonder drug” that could cure almost anything, even the dreaded “new” disease syphilis which had appeared in Europe shortly after Christopher Columbus’ first return voyage. Even better yet, the belief somehow developed that (Sassafras albidum) would retard old age. (Sassafras albidum) does seem to have antibacterial and antiviral properties that are good, for example, at warding off colds.

picture: (Sassafras albidum) summer leaves, Morgan Street Stamford CT 2004
So, by the mid-1600’s, (Sassafras albidum) became the Americas’ number two export to Europe; number one being tobacco, and number three probably being cane sugar products such as molasses and rum. (The sugar cane itself probably originated in Polynesian but was definitely imported to Jamaica by Christopher Columbus in the 1500’s). You might pause to consider that two of the three big export items, tobacco and cane sugar, are commonly known to be not real good for you, and wonder if there’s a pattern developing.

Following its stunning European debut, various parts of the (Sassafras albidum) tree came to be widely used in food and medicine. Sassafras oil, extracted from the root bark, was used to flavor many things. Root beer was named for the beverage’s major flavoring agents which, you guessed it, were the roots of our friend (Sassafras albidum), combined with fermented molasses (from cane sugar). People also ingested gallons of sassafras tea, believed to be healthful as well as delicious. (Sassafras albidum) leaves were ground up and widely sold as “filè” powder, a major Cajun seasoning and thickening agent.

In later years, as the science of chemistry developed, it was discovered that what made Sassafras oil so tasty was a chemical compound “safrole”. While safrole is found in at least 70 plants, what distinguished (Sassafras albidum) is the unusually high concentration of the chemical in the tree’s root bark.

Things went merrily on their way until the 1960’s when the FDA banned safrole’s use as an additive after safrole was found to cause liver cancer in rats, and miscarriages in humans. In the 1970’s, sale of safrole-containing sassafras tea was also banned. So much for this age-defying “wonder drug”, now also banned in Canada. Safrole, by-the-way, is said to be similar to the compound, thujone, found in the wormwood which was used to make absinthe until banned in 1913.

Today, (Sassafras albidum) leaves, which are low in safrole (or don’t contain it at all, depending on who you listen to), are still widely sold as “filè” powder. If you have an unpolluted source of (Sassafras albidum), it is said that you can make your own filè for gumbo and the like by drying very young leaves, then grinding them in a spice mill. (Sassafras albidum) extracts, after being treated to remove all but legally-permitted trace amounts of safrole, are still used in candy, beverages, perfumes, soaps, and the like. However, without the good old safrole, the resulting products just do not have the same aroma or flavor impact. So, it is true: root beer does not taste as good as when the baby boomers and their parents were kids.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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