|Sassafras albidum, Wanaque, New Jersey|
Sassafras albidum (Sassafras, White Sassafras, Red Sassafras, or Silky Sassafras) is a species of Sassafras native to eastern North America, from southern Maine and southern Ontario west to Iowa, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas. It occurs throughout the eastern deciduous forest habitat type, at altitudes of sea level up to 1,500 m. It formerly also occurred in southern Wisconsin, but is extirpated there as a native tree.
It is a medium-sized deciduous tree growing to 15–20 m tall, with a trunk up to 60 cm diameter, and a crown with many slender branches. The bark on trunk of mature trees is thick, dark red-brown, and deeply furrowed. The branching is sympodial. The shoots are bright yellow green at first with mucilaginous bark, turning reddish brown, and in two or three years begin to show shallow fissures. The leaves are alternate, green to yellow-green, ovate or obovate, 10–16 cm long and 5–10 cm broad with a short, slender, slightly grooved petiole. They come in three different shapes, all of which can be on the same branch; three-lobed leaves, unlobed elliptical leaves, and two-lobed leaves; rarely, there can be more than three lobes. In fall, they turn to shades of yellow, tinged with red. The flowers are produced in loose, drooping, few-flowered racemes up to 5 cm long in early spring shortly before the leaves appear; they are yellow to greenish-yellow, with five or six tepals. It is usually dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees; male flowers have nine stamens, female flowers with six staminodes (aborted stamens) and a 2–3 mm style on a superior ovary. Pollination is by insects. The fruit is a dark blue-black drupe 1 cm long containing a single seed, borne on a red fleshy club-shaped pedicel 2 cm long; it is ripe in late summer, with the seeds dispersed by birds. The cotyledons are thick and fleshy. All parts of the plant are aromatic and spicy. The roots are thick and fleshy, and frequently produce root sprouts which can develop into new trees.
It prefers rich, well-drained sandy loam with a pH of 6–7, but will grow in any loose, moist soil. Seedlings will tolerate shade, but saplings and older trees demand full sunlight for good growth; in forests it typically regenerates in gaps created by windblow. Growth is rapid, particularly with root sprouts, which can reach 1.2 m in the first year and 4.5 m in 4 years. Root sprouts often result in dense thickets, and a single tree, if allowed to spread unrestrained, will soon be surrounded by a sizable clonal colony, as its stoloniferous roots extend in every direction and send up multitudes of shoots.
The wood is dull orange brown, hard, and durable in contact with the soil; it was used in the past for posts and rails, small boats and ox-yokes, though scarcity and small size limits current use. Some is still used for making furniture.
Medicinal and food uses
An essential oil, called sassafras oil, is distilled from the root bark or the fruit. It was used as a fragrance in perfumes and soaps, food (sassafras tea and candy flavoring) and for aromatherapy. The smell of sassafras oil is said to make an excellent repellent for mosquitoes and other insects, which makes it a nice garden plant. Acids can be extracted from bark for manufacturing perfumes.
The root or root bark is used to make tea, although most commercial "sassafras teas" are now artificially flavored as a result of the FDA ban (see below). A yellow dye is obtained from the wood. The shoots were used to make root beer, a traditional soft drink beverage carbonated with yeast, which owed its characteristic odor and flavor to the sassafras extract. Most commercial root beers have replaced the sassafras extract with methyl salicylate, the ester found in wintergreen and black birch (Betula lenta) bark. A safrole-free sassafras extract is now available for flavoring.
Safrole is now recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture as a potential carcinogen. Safrole, and sassafras not certified as safrole-free, have been banned in the United States as food additives or flavoring agents by the FDA since 1976 due to safrole's designation as a carcinogen. According to the FDA's listing, sassafras leaves “must be safrole free” to be used as food additives.
Safrole is commonly used by clandestine laboratories to synthesize various drugs such as MDA, MDMA and MDEA. For this reason, the sale of safrole and sassafras oil is monitored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Before the twentieth century, Sassafras enjoyed a great reputation in the medical literature, but became valued for its power to improve the flavor of other medicines.
- Flora of North America: Sassafras albidum
- U.S. Forest Service: Sassafras albidum (pdf file)
- Hope College, Michigan: Sassafras albidum
- U.S. Forest Service Silvics Manual: Sassafras albidum
- Although some sources give 30 or 35 meters as the maximum height, as of 1982 the US champion is only 76 feet (23 meters) tall
- "Sassafras albidum". Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
- Whit Bronaugh (May–June, 1994). "The biggest sassafras". American Forests
- Keeler, H. L. (1900). Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. Charles Scriber's Sons, New York.
- Missouriplants: Sassafras albidum
- Kamdem D. P., Gage, D. A. (1995). "Chemical Composition of Essential Oil from the Root Bark of Sassafras albidum". Journal of Organic Chemistry 61 (6): 574–575. doi:10.1055/s-2006-959379. PMID 8824955.
- "US FDA/CFSAN: Listing of Food Additive Status". FDA. July 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-25.
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