One of my earliest memories is drinking iced sassafras tea with my grandmother on a hot summer’s day. She made the amber beverage and kept it in mason jars in the refrigerator. I enjoyed the flavor but never developed much of a fondness for the sweeter effervescent root beer which can also be made from sassafras. The chilled tea was a satisfying drink in the summer, but it wasn’t near as good as the peach brandy she also made.
Sassafras is in the Lauraceae family and is the northernmost example of this family of tropical trees that includes cinnamon, avocado, and bay leaf laurel. It has been called by many common names such as cinnamon wood, ague tree, and saloop. It is one of the great treasures of the New World. Native Americans taught the settlers to use the root bark to make a tea that came to be used as a cure-all tonic on both sides of the Atlantic. The dried sassafras leaves and roots were one of the first items shipped back to Europe from the colonies. At one time in the 17th century, sassafras leaves were a more important cash-crop than tobacco.
Sassafras is a moderately growing, long-lived, small- to medium-sized deciduous tree. In the Southeast, this plant is usually observed as a scraggly member of a small colony or thicket. It usually grows to a 20-foot height when it grows as an undisturbed thicket or it can reach 40 feet to 90 feet with a spread of up to 25 feet when it grows in a tree form. The current champion tree is in Owensboro, Kentucky and is 78 feet tall with a 69-foot spread. Trunks tend to be straight, reddish, and smooth. Leaves are untoothed, 3” to 9” long, and 3” to 4” wide with three distinct leaf shapes growing on the same tree. There is a simple ovate shape, a 2-lobed mitten shape, and a three-lobed trident shaped leaf form. These multiple leaf shapes are one of the best ways to identify this tree. Only mulberries and figs have 3 leaf types like sassafras. The leaves are shiny light grass-green on top and glaucous blue-green underneath. Leaves are distinctively aromatic, like most parts of this plant and have a slightly gummy, mucilaginous taste. The leaves are held in an alternate fashion and can be covered in a velvety down or completely hairless. Twigs are green, limber, less than an inch long, and hairy when viewed under magnification. Branches are zig-zag and form horizontal layers like a dogwood. The flowers are light greenish-yellow and appear in late spring just as the leaves are forming. These tiny inconspicuous flowers have 5 petals and are held in 2-inch clusters at the ends of twigs. The fragrant flower clusters are much heavier on female trees. The fruit are ½-inch, one-seeded, fleshy, dark blue, egg-shaped drupes. They are held on long red stalks or pedicels with cup-shaped ends. The fruit ripens in September and is quickly eaten by birds. The bark is dark green on young trees and deeply fissured, reddish-brown with irregular horizontal cracks on older trees. The trunks of mature sassafras trees are usually straight and no more than 8- to 12-inches in diameter. Sassafras trees have large tap roots and spread by root suckers. The root bark is highly aromatic and holds the greatest concentration of sassafras oils.
Sassafras trees are normally spotted along roadsides, at the edges of forests, in open fields, or beside fence rows. They are seldom found as understory trees. They range from central Florida, northward to southwestern Maine, westward to Ontario, southward to eastern Texas, and on into the mountains of southern Mexico. Sassafras live in USDA zones 5 thru 9.
Sassafras trees are low maintenance and easy to grow. Soils that are moist, well-drained, loamy, and slightly acidic with a pH of less than 6.8 are favored by the sassafras. Although, they will tolerate heavy waterlogged soil for short periods and are somewhat drought-tolerant, they won’t endure times of prolonged drought. These trees are shade tolerant but prefer locations with full sun at least half the day.
After planting a seedling or young tree, water once a day for the first week and then once a week for the next month. When your sassafras tree is well established, it won’t need any supplemental watering unless there is a long-term drought and it won’t need any fertilizer.
Pruning & Training
Sassafras trees must be trained into a tree form otherwise they will revert into low-growing, multi-stemmed shrubs forming a dense thicket. If a tree form is preferred, select a primary trunk and then prune away the other trunks and lower branches. As the tree ages, prune away any dead wood and keep the root suckers under control.
Sassafras are dioecious trees meaning male and female flowers are held on separate trees. Only female trees with pollinated flowers will produce fruit. Pollination is accomplished by insects when trees are blooming in late spring. A small percentage of the fruit will produce viable seed. You must plant both male and female trees in order to produce fruit.
The easiest method of sassafras propagation is by digging up small root suckers at the base of parent trees or at the edges of a thickets in early spring before the plants leaf out. Dig down to the bottom of the long tap root of each sucker then gently extract the plantlet. Pot them up immediately into stretched 5- or 6-gallon pots like those used for pecan or pine trees. These special pots will accommodate their long tap roots. Sassafras can also be multiplied by root cuttings taken in early spring while the plants are still dormant. Propagation by seed, although unreliable, can be accomplished by harvesting the dark blue fruit when fully filled out. Clean the seeds and air dry them for a day or two. Store the seeds refrigerated in sealed containers. Plant the seeds outdoors in fall or stratify them at 41- degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 60 days and sow them the next spring.
Harvest & Storage
Roots can be gathered year-round, but the best time to harvest roots is on an early spring morning after the sap with all the sugars begins to rise. Leaves and twigs can be collected from spring till fall. Leaves are usually dried and ground up for storage. Roots are dried and kept in paper bags or boxes until used for teas or other decoctions.
Pest & Disease/General Problems
Being a native tree, Sassafras trees are as tough as nails. They are nearly pest and disease free. Although sassafras can be susceptible to borers, Japanese beetles, scale insects, Promethea moths, and weevils, these pests normally cause minimal damage. There is no need to spray pesticides to control them. Fungal leaf spot diseases can also affect the trees, but rarely are a big enough problem to make it necessary to spray fungicides. Leaf spots can be controlled by raking up the leaves in fall and avoiding fertilizing or overwatering. Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease for which there is no cure, can occasionally infect sassafras trees. So, if you notice limbs turning yellow starting at the base of the tree and progressing towards the top of the tree, remove it from your yard.
A problem can be caused when planted in high pH (alkaline) soils. Sassafras can exhibit yellow leaves with green veins (iron chlorosis), which can be remedied by applying a pH adjusting compound such as aluminum sulphate to the soil to make it more acidic. Mature sassafras trees are difficult to transplant due to their deep tap root and tend to produce many root suckers, especially when the roots have been disturbed by cultivation. Like hickory trees, sassafras trees are allelopathic and emit compounds that discourage the growth of other plants near them.
Since scientists with the USDA determined in 1960 that safrole, a phenolic ester of the plant, caused cancer in rats when they consumed extremely large quantities of a synthetic version of safrole. It is no longer considered to be a safe edible plant. This is controversial because humans and rats process safrole in different ways. Rats convert safrole into a carcinogen, whereas, humans do not. Please make you own determination before consuming parts of this plant or recipes made with it.
All parts of the sassafras plant can be eaten raw. The winter buds and young leaves are especially delicious when added to a salad. Leaves and twigs can be gathered from spring till fall whereas the roots can be dug year-round. But, the roots are best when gathered on early spring mornings after the sap has begun to rise. This will insure a higher sugar content in the roots. The twigs and leaf stalks have an agreeable, but somewhat spicy, mucilaginous taste.
Any part of the sassafras plant can be used to make a tasty tea, but the inner bark of the roots is the best. Simmer the cleaned roots in a large covered pot for 20 minutes until the water turns a reddish-brown. The same roots can be used two or three times to extract tea. Add just a sweetener to enjoy it as a tea or add seltzer water and sweetener to make an authentic root beer. Jelly can be made by adding pectin, sweetener, and lemon juice to this same tea. Native Americans taught the settlers to make a thickener and seasoning for soups and stews by grinding dried young leaves into a fine powder. The powder was then run through a sieve to remove any larger irregular pieces. The powdered seasoning was later incorporated into Creole cooking and called gumbo file’. Gumbo file’ is still legally sold as a seasoning since the dried leaves do not contain safrole. The inner bark can be scraped off the roots, dried, processed through a spice grinder or blender and used as a spice to replace cinnamon. A condiment can also be made by boiling the roots down into a thick paste.
Even with negative news and bans on its use, sassafras tea and sassafras oil continue to be popular. Numerous classical uses are still being employed. Sassafras oil can be applied topically to joints to relieve pain and decrease inflammation caused by gout and arthritis. It can be used to treat skin-related problems such as rashes, eczema, acne blemishes, and boils. Because of its antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, it has been used as an antiseptic in dental surgery, to treat tooth decay, speed the healing of wounds, and to improve the overall immune system. The use of this plant to reduce high fevers is one of its oldest classic applications. The diuretic properties of sassafras enable it to purge the body of toxins by increasing urination thus flushing out fats, salts, toxins and water. Sassafras tea can also aid in reducing inflammation in the digestive tract and help to regulate bowel movements.
Native American Uses
Native Americans had numerous medicinal uses for sassafras which were spread across many different tribes, but they had many of the same uses. The most prevalent use was as a decoction to treat colds, pneumonia, and other pulmonary issues. Decoctions were also used as a febrifuge to lower fevers and mitigate chills. The pith of sassafras branches was used in a decoction to wash burns. The leaves were used as a dermatological aid in the form of a poultice for cuts, burns, bruises, and bee stings. A root decoction was made to treat urinary problems such as frequent or blocked urination and general bladder pain.
Sassafras trees attract butterflies and are utilized as a larval host for some butterfly varieties. Birds such as brown thrashers, robins, pileated woodpeckers, and catbirds are drawn to the aromatic dark blue fruit of the plant for food and as mast. Wildlife like bears, beavers and deer enjoy eating the fruit, twigs, foliage, wood, and bark.
The aromatic oils are used as a fragrance for scented soaps and perfumes. From the time of the colonists to the early 20th century, the oils of the sassafras were used as an insect repellant. The aromatic wood has been used to make furniture. Early settlers mixed beans with the sassafras flowers to make a fertilizer for crops. The bark was also used to make an orange dye.
The sassafras tree can be used as a stand-alone specimen or as a mass planting in the landscape. With their interesting layered branching, fragrant spring flowers, glossy green foliage through the summer, and striking bright yellow to red-orange autumn foliage, they make an excellent addition to any backyard seating area or outdoor room.
Hazards & Cautions
The FDA banned many former uses of the plant since safrole, the principle toxic constituent, was determined to be a mild carcinogen in 1960. If you do decide to use sassafras tea knowing the possible dangers, herbalists advise that it should only be consumed at the rate of one to two cups a day for no longer than a month. Extreme consumption of the tea can cause nausea, vomiting and stupor. The use of sassafras tea or safrole also poses a health risk to pregnant women because it can cause miscarriages. Breastfeeding women and children are also warned to avoid sassafras tea since it can cause severe side effects in small children. Consuming as little as 5 ml of concentrated essential sassafras oil can cause serious side effects such as elevated blood pressure, hallucinations and even liver damage. So, use the sassafras oil and tea in moderation. A legal notice has been issued to businesses by the DEA warning that sassafras oil or safrole can be used in the manufacture of MDMA.
There is one other recognized cultivar, the silky sassafras or variety molle, which has downy branches when young and the underside of the mature leaf is also pubescent. Sassafras trees were never widely cultivated probably due to them being difficult to transplant. But, with all the many landscape uses of a small to medium size tree, it has great potential for a hybridizing program.
The history of sassafras has been filled with many of ups and downs. There have been many controversies, sometimes shameful, sometimes dangerous, sometimes illicit, but it has always come back to being recognized as a useful plant. After being used for food and as a medicinal for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by native peoples, sassafras came to be used by many Europeans and colonists in the 17th century as a cure-all tonic, especially for syphilis and gonorrhea. People then began to shun the use of sassafras tea because it came to be associated with those having venereal diseases, although it continued to be used for decades for rheumatism and as a cold remedy. Nineteenth-century children were given concoctions of sassafras and opium to keep them calm and well-behaved. In the early 1960s, sassafras was unjustly restricted by the USDA due to the compound, safrole, being found to cause cancer in lab rats. So, people could no longer legally have their root beer and sassafras tea. Artificial alternatives had to be formulated. Then in the 1970s, it was discovered that two illicit recreational drugs, MDA and MDMA, could be made from safrole. One of which, MDMA or Ecstasy became hugely popular with rave music fans in the 1990s. Now, in the 21st century, MDMA is being used as an effective treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients and Tamiflu, a flu medication, is made from safrole. We have come full circle back to an understanding of the immense usefulness of this plant.
References & External Links
- Angier, Bradford. Edible Wild Plants. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
- Antol, Marie Nadine. Healing Teas: Boost Your Health with Nature’s Medicine. New York: Penquin Group, 1996.
- http://www.eattheweeds.com?s=sassafras. Deane, Green. Sassafras: Root Beer Rat Killer. Eat the Weeds, 2007.
- Halfacre, R. Gordon and Shawcroft, Anne R. Landscape Plants of the Southeast. Raleigh, NC: Sparks Press, 1989.
- https://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/mdmaassisted-therapy-fot-ptsd-edges-closer-to-fda-approval-after-largestever-trial. Kovner, Aliyah. MDMA-assisted Therapy for PTSD Edges Closer to FDA Approval After Largest-ever Trial. IFL Science, October 30, 2018.
- Kirkman, L. Katherine and Brown, Claud L. and Leopold, Donald J. Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide. Portland: Timber Press, 2007.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber Press, 1998.
- Peterson, Lee Allen. Edible Wild Plants: Eastern /Central North America. New York: Houghts Mifflin Harcourt, 1977.
- Russell, Tony and Cutler, Catherine. Trees: An Illustrated Identifier and Encyclopedia. London: Anness Publishing, 2004.
- Sternburg, Guy and Wilson, Jim. Native Trees for North American Landscapes. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.
- Wasowski, Sally and Wasowski, Andy. Gardening with Native Plants of the South. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010.
ArcheWilde Native Nurseries – Quakertown, PA
Campbell Family Nursery – Harmony, NC
Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery – Orefield, PA
Native Forest Nursery – Chatsworth, GA
Yellow Springs Farm Native Plant Nursery – Chester Springs, PA