The exact origin of "sassafras" is unknown, although the tree and its properties became famous in Europe in the 1500s, and the word possibly derives from a French or Spanish root word. The tree has several common names, including sassafrac, saxifrac, smelling stick, aguetree and cinnamonwood tree, defining its fragrance.
The sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) is a medium-sized, deciduous tree, native to eastern North America. Its height varies from a shrub of about 7 to 8 feet, to around 100 feet as a lofty, full-fledged tree, depending on the area in which it grows. The alternate leaves, between 3 and 5 inches long, are particularly unusual. They are of three different shapes. The first is oval. The second one looks like a mitten. The third has three distinct lobes. The leaves turn from yellow to a vibrant red at the approach of fall. In the spring, the tree exhibits clusters of fragrant, five-petaled, yellow flowers. The sassafras tree also produces a dark blue, egg-shaped, berry-like fruit that ripens in stalked clusters from about August through October. Deer, turkeys, bears and birds eat the fruit.
Food And Medicine
Native Americans and early settlers derived food and medicine from parts of the sassafras tree. The leaves made aromatic salads. Boiling the roots and adding molasses produced the earliest root beer in the southern states. Sassafras tea involved letting a handful of leaves steep in boiling water, so that the scent, like root beer, would permeate the water and create a fragrant and pleasant tea. The root bark of the sassafras tree had many uses in alternative medicine. It was a treatment for a wide array of health conditions from common colds to liver and kidney problems to rheumatism. A sassafras tree repels mosquitoes due to the aroma given off by the tree's essential oils.
In Seville, a Spanish physician named Nicolaus Monardes documented the healing properties of sassafras in 1574. He gleaned his information from Spanish travelers to Florida, as well as from government documents at his disposal. He wrote that sassafras was an antidote to fevers and other ailments. Sassafras wood and root exports to Europe followed, with special sailing expeditions to America undertaken in the early 1600s to secure these products.
According to Persian and Flemish folklore, living beings came from a double tree that God separated into two people, turning the branches into arms and legs and the crowns into heads, and providing each with a soul. Knowledge was a further gift. The mitten-like leaves of the sassafras tree perhaps reflect the link between man and tree. This may be why the superstitious do not burn sassafras wood.
In 1960, the FDA banned safrole, an oil of the root bark of the sassafras tree. The ban resulted from tests on mice, which pinpointed possible carcinogenic effects. To date, there are no studies of possible effects on humans.