Sassafras

Sassafras albidum
Family: Lauraceae

Natural HistorySassafras plant showing the lobed and unlobed leaves
Sassafras plant showing the lobed and unlobed leaves
Photo credit: Niels Proctor, University of Florida

Sassafras, sometimes called white sassafras, is well known for its aromatic properties. The leaves and bark both have a slightly citrus scent, while the roots have a strong root-beer odor. It is from these roots that root beer was historically produced by early colonists. The roots were boiled with molasses, and then allowed to ferment, until a distinctive soft drink was produced. Sassafras tea is another popular drink that is steeped from the bark of the tree and served as a "soothing drink," or a "spring tonic." In England, the tea is mixed with milk and sugar to make saloop, a popular morning beverage.

Habitat & Range

Sassafras is found throughout the eastern and southern United States and into Mexico. It ranges as far west as Texas and Iowa. It grows well in moist, well drained, or sandy loam soils but may tolerate a variety of soil types. It is commonly found in open woods, along fences, or in fields. Sassafras trees regenerate quickly after a disturbance and are early pioneers in old fields. This species is sometimes grown to restore depleted soils.

Wildlife Use

White-tailed deer are known to browse on the twigs and leaves of sassafras trees. This plant can also be a larval host for several species of butterflies, including the Spicebush Swallowtail, the Promethea Silkmoth, and the Pale Swallowtail.

Human Use

Herbalists use sassafras for a variety of medicinal uses. It is said to have value as a stimulant, pain reliever, astringent and treatment for rheumatism. Skin eruptions may be bathed in an infusion from the leaves. Sassafras tonic has been used as a treatment for syphilis since the early 1600's. It is reported that chewing on the bark may help break the tobacco habit; however, ingestion of sassafras may cause vomiting and can be toxic if taken in large doses. Medicinal use of sassafras has declined in recent years because of the possibility that it may contain carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).

In addition to medicinal uses, sassafras wood, bark and roots produce an extract (oil of sassafras) that is useful in flavorings, or in perfumes and scented soaps. A yellow dye is also extracted from the trees. The crushed leaves were used by colonists to thicken soups and stews. Sassafras wood is very durable and is used to make buckets, barrels, poles, posts, and crossties. It is also used in interior cabinetry.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Sassafras is a medium-sized, deciduous shrubby tree that may grow 60 to 80 feet tall, with a cylindrical trunk and twisted branches.
Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternately arranged and may be of three types, mitten-shaped, lobed, or obovate-elliptical. They are 4 to 6 inches long, yellowish-green and fuzzy, above and below, with distinctly sunken veins (rugose). The petioles are stout and have an obvious reddish color. Leaves have a citrus scent when crushed
Twigs: Most notable of a sassafras twig is its spicy-sweet aroma when broken.
Bark: Young twigs are yellowish-green and hairy. The older trees have bark that is thick, scaly, deeply furrowed, and cinnamon-brown colored. The inner bark is very aromatic.
Flowers: The flowers of the sassafras are small yet quite showy and bright yellow-green in color.
Fruit: The fruit is a dark blue drupe on a thick, reddish stalk.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • None.

 

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