Wild Ideas: The spicy, sassy sassafras tree

As leaves turn brown and fall off the trees, I’ve been appreciating the persistent, sassy attitude of our native sassafras (Sassafras albidum), whose golden, deep-orange, red or purple leaves still brighten up the landscape.

Sassafras leaves in early November. They often add a brilliant color accent to the forest that is already turning brown.Pam Owen
Sassafras leaves in early November. They often add a brilliant color accent to the forest that is already turning brown.

A common native species, sassafras is easy to identify, with its smooth-edged leaves formed into two or three lobes of unequal size, like a mitten. It occurs as a slender bush or as tree that can grow to around 60 feet. Although it can grow in a variety of soils, sassafras prefers sandy loam in moist, well-drained areas. It is a pioneer species, one of the first trees to colonize fields as they convert back to forest. And, like some other native and nonnative trees, it is allelopathic, excreting a chemical that kills or discourages the growth of some other plants around it.

Among the wide variety of plants our local ecosystem offered when I was growing up in the Virginia suburbs in the 1950s, sassafras was a favorite among us kids because its leaves, when crushed, released a wonderful, spicy scent and taste. Even better, when chewed, they induced the production of copious amounts of viscous spit — essential in kid one-upmanship when launched for distance or as a weapon.

We also chewed on the roots, which tasted of root beer with a touch of earthiness (partly because we weren’t too scrupulous about cleaning them). The taste was no surprise, since we knew the roots were used to make root beer and tea — until 1960, when scientific research indicated safrole, a substance found in all parts of the plant but concentrated in the roots, could cause cancer. After that, our parents pretty much put the kibosh on root chewing.

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists safrole among the “substances generally prohibited from direct addition or use as human food.” These days most commercial suppliers use an artificial substitute to flavor tea. Reminiscing about hunting with his grandfather for sassafras root to make tea, osteopathic doctor John C. Wolf at Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine’s website gives his take on the root’s danger:

“The health threat associated with one cup of sassafras tea is quite small. On the other hand, daily consumption of it is more of a concern, while drinking 10 cups daily should certainly be avoided. Nervousness and sweating are the signs of overuse, while liver cancer is the long-term risk.”

Sixteenth-century Spanish botanist Nicholas Monardes is credited with naming the plant. He apparently incorrectly thought it was in the saxifrage genus, or “saxifraga” in Latin, which was corrupted into “sassafras.”

The use of sassafras goes back to before Europeans arrived in the New World. According to Bellarmine University’s website, records as early as 1577 show that the plant was used by Native Americans for various medicinal cures, which early colonists adopted.

In 1578, Sir Walter Raleigh brought the plant back to England from the Virginia Colony. After participating in an expedition to Roanoke Island (in what is now North Carolina), English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Hariot touted the plant’s virtues in his 1588 report on the trip, “A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia” (available at digitalcommons.unl.edu, among other sites):

“Sassafras, called by the inhabitantes Winauk, a kinde of wood of most pleasand and sweete smel; and of most rare vertues in phisick for the cure of many diseases. It is found by experience to bee farre better and of more vses then the wood which is called Guaiacum, or Lignum vitæ.”

The popularity of sassafras boomed in England, where it “was touted to cure almost any ailment when used in a tea or tonic and was a favorite,” according to the Bellarmine site, which adds that trade peaked “when a rumor started that sassafras retarded old age.” English ships were sent to the colonies to collect the plant in what was known as the “Great Sassafras Hunts.”

However, according to one website, the enthusiasm for it dried up quickly when Europeans “realized that it did not keep well and presented in the long run a certain toxicity.”

On the medicinal side, it has been used topically or ingested to treat a variety of ailments, including syphilis, smallpox, rheumatism, urinary tract disorders, swelling in the nose and throat, bronchitis, high blood pressure, gout, arthritis, swollen eyes, sprains, insect bites or stings, skin problems and cancer. It has also been used as a “blood purifier” and to induce abortions and exterminate head lice. Safrole oil is still used today in the manufacture of “the coarser kinds of perfume, and for scenting the cheapest grades of soap,” according to Botanical.com, and in yellow and orange dyes.

The wood of sassafras has been used not only in construction but also for fence posts, barrels, furniture, buckets and fuel and, the culinary use of sassafras also predates Europeans’ arrival to the New World. According to Bellarmine, the Choctaws ground up the plant’s leaves, which have very little safrole, to use as a spice and thickener in foods. Europeans who settled in Louisiana, particularly the Cajuns and creoles, adopted the habit, using what they call “filé” in sauces, gumbos and soups.

A wide range of mammals, birds and invertebrates also eat sassafras leaves, bark or fruits. The caterpillars of spicebush swallowtail butterflies will only feed on it and other plants in the Lauraceae family, which include spicebush. 

While I’m still prone to chewing on sassafras leaves, these days it’s more for their lovely flavor than their ability to produce a copious amount of spit.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”