The aromatic sassafras is a 35-50 ft., deciduous tree with horizontal branching in cloud-like tiers. The mahogany-brown bark is deeply ridged and furrowed. Little bunches of yellow-green flower balls are scattered profusely over the female tree; more sparsely on the male. Dark-blue fruits on scarlet stalks appear on female plants in late summer. Bright-green, mitten-shaped, oval, or three-lobed leaves have outstanding fall color.
The roots and root bark supply oil of sassafras (used to perfume soap) and sassafras tea, and have been used to flavor root beer. Explorers and colonists thought the aromatic root bark was a panacea, or cure-all, for diseases and shipped quantities to Europe. The greenish twigs and leafstalks have a pleasant, spicy, slightly gummy taste. Sassafras apparently is the American Indian name used by the Spanish and French settlers in Florida in the middle of the 16th century. This is the northernmost New World representative of an important family of tropical timbers.
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 leafpatterns on the same plant, unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three-pronged); rarely the leaves can be five-lobed. 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 flowersare five-petaled, and bloom in the spring; they are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees. The fruitare blue-black, egg-shaped, 1 cm long, produced on long, red-stalked cups, and mature in late summer.
The largest sassafras tree in the United States is located in Owensboro, Kentucky, which measures over 100 feet high and 21 feet in circumference.
The name “sassafras,” applied by the botanist Nicolas Monardesin the 16th century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanishword for saxifrage.
Note: You may have heard that sassafras has been banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it causes cancer. Huge quantities have given to rats over took periods of time give the rodents cancer because they change the molecule sassafrole into a cancer-causing one. Humans don’t do this, and no one has ever gotten sick from sassafras. Sassafras was banned because there are a lot of rats in the FDA!
The young twigs and leaves are edible fresh or dried. You can add dried young twigs and leaves to soups. Dig the underground portion, peel off the bark, and let it dry. Then boil it in water to prepare sassafras tea.
Shred the tender twigs for use as a toothbrush.
Where Does Sassafras (Sassafras Albidum) Grow?
Perhaps the easiest way to identify a Sassafras tree is by its leaves. Sassafras has a very distinctive leaf that looks like a three lobed mitten.
The smell of sassafras is distinctive enough that it has often been used in teas and perfumes.
Crush one of the leaves in your hand. Take a good whiff: it may smell remarkably like Fruit Loops. This odor, in conjunction with the other characteristics, mark the leaf as sassafras.