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This article is about the various species of the sassafras tree of the Northern Hemisphere; for the North American sassafras, see Sassafras albidum. For other uses, see Sassafras (disambiguation).
Sassafras albidum,
Wanaque, New Jersey
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Magnoliids
Order: Laurales
Family: Lauraceae
Genus: Sassafras

S. albidum
S. hesperia
S. randaiense
S. tzumu


Pseudosassafras Lecomte

Sassafras is a genus of three[1][2] extant and one extinct[3] species of deciduous trees in the family Lauraceae, native to eastern North America and eastern Asia.[2]


Male and female Sassafras albidum flowers. The male flower is on the left; the female is on the right. The male flower has nine stamens (one partially obscured), while the female has a central pistil.

Sassafras trees grow from 9–18 m (30–59 ft) tall and spreading 7.5–12 m (25–39 ft).[4] The trunk grows 70–150 cm (28–59 in) in diameter, with many slender branches, and smooth, orange-brown bark. The branching is sympodial. The bark of the mature trunk is thick, red-brown, and deeply furrowed. The wood is light, hard, and sometimes brittle. All parts of the plants are very fragrant. The species are unusual in having three distinct leaf patterns on the same plant: unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three-pronged); the leaves are hardly ever five-lobed.[5] They have smooth margins and grow 7–20 cm long by 5–10 cm broad. The young leaves and twigs are quite mucilaginous, and produce a citrus-like scent when crushed. The tiny, yellow flowers are five-petaled, and bloom in the spring; they are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees. The fruit are blue-black, egg-shaped, 1 cm long, produced on long, red-stalked cups, and mature in late summer.[1] The largest sassafras tree in the United States is located in Owensboro, Kentucky, and measures over 100 feet high and 21 feet in circumference.[6][7]

The name "sassafras," applied by the botanist Nicolas Monardes in 1570,[8] comes from the French sassafras[9] (from the Latin saxifraga or saxifragus: "stone-breaking;" saxum "rock" + frangere "to break").[10]


Most of the Lauraceae are aromatic, evergreen trees or shrubs adapted to high rainfall and humidity. But the Sassafras genus and one or two other[which?] genera in Lauraceae are deciduous.

Deciduous sassafras trees lose all of their leaves for part of the year, depending on variations in rainfall.[citation needed] In deciduous tropical Lauraceae, leaf loss coincides with the dry season in tropical, subtropical and arid regions. In temperate climates, the dry season is due to the inability of the plant to absorb water available to it only in the form of ice.[citation needed]

Sassafras is commonly found in open woods, along fences, or in fields. It grows well in moist, well-drained, or sandy loam soils and tolerates a variety of soil types, attaining a maximum in southern and wetter areas of distribution.

In Sassafras, the dispersal of seeds is due to birds that swallow them, so the berries' shape is attractive to birds. The fruits are an important food source for birds.


Fossil Sassafras hesperia leaf from Early Ypresian, Klondike Mountain Formation, Washington state, USA.

Importance to livestock and wildlife[edit]

Sassafras leaves and twigs are consumed by white-tailed deer in both summer and winter. In some areas, it is an important deer food.[13] Sassafras leaf browsers include groundhogs, marsh rabbits, and American black bears.[13] Rabbits eat sassafras bark in winter.[13] American beavers will cut sassafras stems.[13] Sassafras fruits are eaten by many species of birds, including bobwhite quail,[13] eastern kingbirds, great crested flycatchers, phoebes, wild turkeys, gray catbirds, northern flickers, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, and northern mockingbirds. Some small mammals also consume sassafras fruits.[13]

For most of the above-mentioned animals, sassafras is not consumed in large enough quantities to be important. Carey and Gill rate its value to wildlife as fair, their lowest rating.[13]


S. albidum is a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail.

Steam distillation of dried root bark produces an essential oil consisting mostly of safrole, which once was extensively used as a fragrance in perfumes and soaps, food and for aromatherapy. Sassafras extract was a primary ingredient in root beer. Commercial "sassafras oil" generally is a byproduct of camphor production in Asia or comes from related trees in Brazil. Safrole is a precursor for the clandestine manufacture of the drug MDMA, as well as the drug MDA (3-4 methylenedioxyamphetamine) and as such, its transport is monitored internationally.

Chemical structure of safrole, a constituent of sassafras essential oil

Culinary uses[edit]

The roots of sassafras can be steeped to make tea, and were used in the flavoring of traditional root beer until being banned for mass production by the FDA. Laboratory animals that were given oral doses of sassafras tea or sassafras oil that contained large doses of safrole developed permanent liver damage or various types of cancer.[citation needed] In humans, liver damage can take years to develop and it may not have obvious signs. Along with commercially available Sarsaparilla, sassafras remains an ingredient in use among hobby or microbrew enthusiasts.

In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil and safrole in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs based on the animal studies and human case reports suggesting safrole is a carcinogen.[14] Several years later, sassafras tea was banned,[14] a ban that lasted until the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994.[15] Sassafras root extracts which do not contain safrole or in which the safrole has been removed are permissible, and are still widely used commercially in teas and root beers.

Filé powder, also called gumbo filé, for its use in making gumbo, is a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. It was traditionally used by Native Americans in the South, and was adopted into Creole cuisine in Louisiana.

Ethnobotanical history[edit]

Numerous Native American tribes used sassafras for medicinal purposes and to ward off evil spirits. Since then, scientists have found that the oil, roots and bark have analgesic and antiseptic properties. It has been used to treat

"scurvy, skin sores, kidney problems, toothaches, rheumatism, swelling, menstrual disorders and sexually transmitted diseases, bronchitis, hypertension, and dysentery. It is also used as a fungicide, dentifrice, rubefacient, diaphoretic, perfume, carminative and sudorific."[16]

During the establishment of the Virginia Colony, including Jamestown in the 17th century, sassafras was a major export commodity to England, both as a medicinal root thought to be effective in treating ague (fevers) and STD, and as wood prized for its beauty and durability. Sassafras was popular in England from its first import by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1602 until the 18th century.[17]

Exploration for sassafras was the catalyst for the 1603 commercial expedition from Bristol of Captain Martin Pring to the coasts of present-day Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.[17] During a brief period in the early 17th century, sassafras was the second-largest export from America behind tobacco. Additionally, throughout history, sassafras wood has been found to be an excellent fire-starter because of the flammability of its natural oils found within the wood and the leaves.

Sassafras was prized in Europe as a purported cure for gonorrhea[18] and syphilis.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Flora of North America: Sassafras
  2. ^ a b c Nie, Z.-L., Wen, J. & Sun, H. (2007). "Phylogeny and biogeography of Sassafras (Lauraceae) disjunction between eastern Asia and eastern North America". Plant Systematics and Evolution 267: 191–203. doi:10.1007/s00606-007-0550-1. 
  3. ^ a b Wolfe, Jack A. & Wehr, Wesley C. 1987. The sassafras is an ornamental tree. "Middle Eocene Dicotyledonous Plants from Republic, Northeastern Washington". United States Geological Survey Bulletin 1597:13
  4. ^ Dirr, Manual of woody landscape plants. Page 938.
  5. ^ Noble Plant Image Gallery Sassafras (includes photo of five-lobed leaf)
  6. ^ [web head "Sassafras albidum"]. Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. 
  7. ^ Whit Bronaugh (May–June 1994). "The biggest sassafras". American Forests. 
  8. ^ Bibliotheca Americana. John Carter Brown Library. 1570. pp. 246, 267, 346. Retrieved 2014-12-09. 
  9. ^ Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 ed.). 1913. p. 1277. Retrieved 2014-12-09. 
  10. ^ Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 ed.). 1913. p. 1280. Retrieved 2014-12-09. 
  11. ^ Arboretum Trompenburg: Sassafras photo
  12. ^ Kamikoti, S. (1933). Ann. Rep. Taihoku Bot. Gard. 3: 78
  13. ^ a b c d e f g This section incorporates text from a public domain work of the US government: Sullivan, Janet (1993). "Sassafras albidum". Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). 
  14. ^ a b Dietz, B; Bolton, Jl (Apr 2007). "Botanical dietary supplements gone bad.". Chemical research in toxicology 20 (4): 586–90. doi:10.1021/tx7000527. ISSN 0893-228X. PMC 2504026. PMID 17362034. 
  15. ^ Kwan, D; Hirschkorn, K; Boon, H (Sep 2006). "U.S. and Canadian pharmacists' attitudes, knowledge, and professional practice behaviors toward dietary supplements: a systematic review." (Free full text). BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 6: 31. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-6-31. PMC 1586212. PMID 16984649. 
  16. ^ a b Tiffany Leptuck, "Medical Attributes of 'Sassafras albidum' - Sassafras"], Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Wilkes-Barre University, 2003
  17. ^ a b Martin Pring, "The Voyage of Martin Pring, 1603", Summary of his life and expeditions at American Journeys website, 2012, Wisconsin Historical Society
  18. ^ Horwitz, Tony (2008). A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. Henry Holt and Co. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-8050-7603-5. 

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