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Almost everything you wanted to know about sassafras

Season in and season out, one of the more interesting common plants in our woodlands is sassafras, which may be shrub-like or attain heights of 130 feet as part of the forest canopy in rich cove hardwoods.

In spring, well before the leaves unfold, distinctive yellowish flower clusters appear. Like holly, it is dioecious; that is, male and female parts appear on separate plants. Starting in mid-summer, distinctive clusters of fruit appear on female plants, changing from green to blue-black as they ripen.  The stalks bearing the fruits are especially distinctive as they enlarge and turn a bright coral red, no doubt as a way of attracting animals to serve as seed distributors.

In fall, the leaves turn a lovely orange or yellow or red, calling attention to their unique patterns. Four distinct shapes can be observed with relative ease, sometimes on the same branch. There are elliptic leaves with no lobes, tri-lobed (three-fingered) leaves, and mitten-shaped leaves with either right-handed or left-handed lobes.

Most growth forms plants display can be readily explained.  Thorns discourage grazing animals, as do the acrid substances that a plant might contain. Sticky substances on a flower’s stem keep ground-dwelling insects from robbing the plant’s nectar and pollen. The plant “wants” flying insects to serve as pollinators since they provide the best chance of cross-pollination. And so on. But why have has sassafras “chosen” to display four leaf patterns? There wouldn’t appear to be a sun-exposure advantage — as with plants that alternate leaf placement so as to avoid having upper leaves shading those below.       

The first Europeans learned the uses of sassafras from the North American Indians, who as a group rank among the most astute botanical observers of all time. Here in the southern mountains, the Cherokees utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague. A poultice was made to cleanse wounds and sores, while the root bark was steeped for diarrhea or for “over-fatness” (certainly one of the first weight reduction remedies to hit the market).

In Cherokee Plants, Paul Hamel and Mary Chiltoskey provided the curious notation that sassafras flowers were mixed with beans for planting. I have no idea what purpose that would serve — unless it was as a good luck token; or perhaps, they had discovered a nitrogen-fixing agent.

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The plant became the first major forest product shipped to the old world, where it was initially considered to be a wonder drug. Indeed, at the height of the “sassafras craze,” colonists were burdened with a governmental requirement that each man produce 100 pounds of the sassafras per year or be penalized ten pounds of tobacco.

According to Rebecca Rupp’s Red Oaks & Black Birches: The Science and Lore of Trees, sassafras tea was thought to cure scurvy, syphilis and other unpleasant maladies. It was served in London coffeehouses with milk and sugar. Ships with sassafras hulls were reputedly safe from shipwreck; chicken houses with sassafras roosting poles were reputedly free of lice; human bedsteads built from it were reputedly bedbug-less; and so on. Eventually, of course, the bottom fell out of the sassafras market as Europeans and Americans moved on to other faddish and trendy panaceas.

In our time, sassafras is perhaps best known as a tea or soup thickener. The young spring leaves are dried and powdered to thicken soups or stews. It is the “file gumbo” of Creole cooking.

According to Rupp, “The active ingredient in sassafras roots is saffrole, which is a chemical found in lesser amounts in cocoa, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, and cinnamon. Saffrole, once used routinely to flavor commercial root beer, was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s, after experiments showed that it caused liver cancer in rats and mice.  

On the other hand, in the “Medicinal Plants” volume in the Peterson field guide series, it’s noted that while the FDA has banned saffrole, “the amount of the substance in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer.”

In Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont (UNC Press, 2011), Clemson Universary biologist Timothy P. Spira offered additional sassafras commentary: “A good seed crop is produced every 2-3 years. Birds quickly remove the ripe high-fat-content (and high energy) fruits … Sassafras is one of several larval host plants for spicebush swallowtail butterfly … Sassafras is an attractive landscape plant in open sunny areas, but is sensitive to ozone.

There you have it … almost everything anyone would ever want to know about sassafras except two things: (1) Does anyone know why the plant “chooses” to display four distinctive leaf shapes?; and (2) Is there an instrumental on YouTube titled “Sassafras” by Timmy Trumpet and Chardy?

Answers: (1) No; (2) Yes.   

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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