A genus of three species of aromatic, deciduous trees, occurring in eastern N America and E Asia. Sassafras albidum, found in thickets and disturbed woods, is grown for its scented, distinctively shaped foliage, which colors well in autumn. It is said that the scent of sassafras trees played a part in the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, who detected their fragrance from afar and was thus guided to land. Sassafras was probably the first N American medicinal herb to reach Europe and, after tobacco, was the most important. Discovered in Florida by the Spanish, it was used medicinally in Spain by c.1560, mainly for venereal diseases. For thousands of years before this, it was used by tribes within its range, almost as a cure-all. Sassafras albidum contains alkaloids, lignans, tannins, resin, and volatile oil the consists of 80-90 percent safrole. This constituent of the essential oil is a common substance in plants; it is commercially important as an ingredient of insecticides, and in the synthesis of heliotropin for the perfumery industry. The main sources are Ocotea pretiosa (Brazilian Sassafras) and Cinnamomum species (See, Cinnamon). Safrole is carcinogenic in laboratory animals. As a consequence, sassafras root was banned in the USA in 1960, and in Europe in 1974. Many countries no longer use the oil as a food flavoring; safrole-free bark extracts may be used instead, although their flavor is inferior.

Suckering, deciduous tree with deeply fissured bark, and aromatic, roughly ovate leaves, to 15cm (6in) long, which are mostly cut into three equal lobes, or sometimes into one lateral lobe only. Yellow-green flowers, 1cm (½in) across, appear in clusters as the new leaves unfold in spring, followed by red-stalked, deep blue, ovoid fruits, 1cm (½in) long.

Common Name:
Botanical Name:
Sassafras albidum
Native Location:
Eastern N America.
Deep, rich, neutral to acid soil in sun or shade, sheltered from late spring frosts.
Propagate by seed sown when ripe; by suckers in autumn; by root cuttings in winter. Seed may take 2 years to germinate.
Leaves are picked in spring and used fresh or dried for powder. Roots are lifted in autumn and dried for decoctions, liquid extracts, powders, and tinctures. Root bark is distilled for oil. Root pith is dried for macerations.
20m (70ft)
12-15cm (40-50ft)
Parts Used:
Leaves, roots (bark, pith, oil).
A sweet, warming herb with a fennel-like aroma. It increases perspiration, relieves pain, improves digestion, and has anti-rheumatic, antiseptic, diuretic, and alterative effects.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for gastrointestinal complaints, colic, menstrual pain, skin diseases, acne, syphilis, gonorrhea, arthritis, and rheumatism (root bark). Externally for sore eyes (root pith), lice, and insect bites (oil), though oil may irritate skin. Combined with Guaiacum officinale (See, Lignum Vitae) and Smilax glabra (See, Sarsaparilla) in a tea to induce therapeutic sweating in feverish illnesses.
Culinary Uses:
Leaves are dried and powdered to make a filet or filé, used in Cajun cooking as a thickener for soup known as gumbo (Louisiana). Roots are made into tea with maple syrup, which is also set as a jellow. Sassafra wood is used for smoking hams in S USA.
Economic Uses:
Extracts are used for flavoring in food and drink industries (especially in rootbeer); also in oral hygiene products.
Excess causes vomiting, dilated pupils, stupor, collapse, and kidney and liver damage.
Essential oil is extremely toxic; a few drops might kill a child, and one teaspoonful might prove fatal to an adult.
Oil may irritate skin.
This herb, especially in the form of oil and safrole, is subject to legal restrictions in some countries.
Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright © 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited Pg 361