Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All the Dirt on Sassafras

In 1603 the first Europeans sailed up the Piscataqua River, exploring what is now the border between New Hampshire and Maine.  This was a commercial venture, as they were specifically searching for something they knew they could sell for a lot of money...
Sassafras leaves turning color for fall
Back when, Sassafras root extract was considered to have great medicinal value as a cure for fevers, rheumatism, and STD's such as gonorrhea and syphilis (you don't often think of people back in the 1600's having these problems, do you?).  Several Native American tribes used Sassafras medicinally, and when colonial Americans brought this knowledge back to Europe, it became quite the medicinal fad.  For a short time Sassafras was the second largest export from colonial America, behind tobacco.

I have several of these native Sassafras trees in my backyard.  Anyone want to pay some big bucks for them?
Sassafras has been found to have some analgesic and antiseptic properties.  Some people still drink sassafras tea for such things as gastrointestinal problems and for use as a diuretic, and some also use it topically to sooth skin irritation.  However, the research from the 1960's found that very large amounts of safrole, which sassafras oil is largely made up of, caused cancer and permanent liver damage in laboratory rats.   So don't ever be a laboratory rat.  (Oh, and you might want to drink that tea in moderate amounts..)

The Sassafras tree is also interesting in that it has three different shaped leaves on the same tree!
(photo source - Augusta, GA government website)
High doses of safrole are also hallucinogenic, which is probably why it is used in the making of the drug MDMA, more widely known as 'Ecstasy' and 'molly' (thank you, Miley Cyrus, for bringing that to my attention).  Thus the transportation of safrole is closely monitored internationally.

The Sassafras trees in my yard are just for ornamental use, really!
Sassafras root used to also be the main flavoring for root beer before its ban by the FDA.  Root beer affectionados still make it themselves from natural Sassafras extract that has all dreaded safrole removed.  Or they make it from scratch from Sassafras roots.  (You can find a recipe here.) Sassafras is also used in Creole cooking.  Filé powder, which is made up from the dried, ground up Sassafras leaves and doesn't contain very much safrole, is used as a thickening seasoning for gumbo.  

Makes you want to go out and smell some Sassafras, doesn't it?


While I admire the Sassafras for its rich history, its varied uses, and its fragrant leaves and wood, I have to admit that as a gardener I really love these native trees for a totally different reason.

They're just really pretty trees.

the interestingly contorted branches of a Sassafras tree

16 comments:

  1. I always remember watching old movies, Westerns in particular, where the ladies would be drinking Sassafras tea. Now I know where the tea came from. I didn't realize it was a tree, and a beautiful tree, to boot. I love the delicate form, how tall do they grow? With all the uses of this tree throughout history, it's amazing it didn't become extinct.

    This was a fascinating post, and it led me to look up 'sarsaparilla' to find out if that came from the sassafras tree, too, but it doesn't, lol. (It was another beverage ladies on old TV westerns used to order.) Ok, I'm watching WAY too much retro-tv.

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    1. It gets pretty tall - the tallest one in the US is in Kentucky and is 100 feet high and 21 feet around! I have some fairly tall ones in my yard. It seems to grow quite easily here, as I have a lot of seedlings in my backyard, so they must proliferate fairly well. Thankfully they weren't popular long enough to wipe them all out, I guess!

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  2. I certainly learned something new today, Indie! I knew that sassafras was once used in the making of root beer, but that's about all. Fascinating info--I think I'll skip the tea and just admire this beautiful tree.

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    1. I think the tea is pretty safe as long as you don't drink large quantities of it. If you drink a lot all at once, apparently it will cause you to start perspiring. Maybe that's why people thought it was a cleansing, medicinal type of drink! I'm not a tea person, but I'm tempted by the root beer. It would be interesting to see how closely it tastes to root beer now.

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  3. We used to have sassafras trees here, but alas, no more. :( I miss them. I had no idea about the safrole, and all it's many (mis)uses. I didn't even realize the FDA had banned the making of root beer from its roots! Enjoy your sassafrases - they are such pretty trees, turning wonderful color in the fall, and their scent is delicious!

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    1. What happened to them? They are such pretty trees. The FDA banned using it in mass production, but it's fine to make it for yourself (as long as you weren't planning on guzzling very large quantities!) I think it would be so interesting to try homemade root beer and see how closely it tastes to the current store-bought kind!

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  4. I've never heard of sassafras trees but I'll agree with you 100% -- they are PRETTY trees. I wonder how many trees have three different kinds of leaves? Thanks for the file powder info; that was interesting. Cute little pine trees in your backyard. Are you going to leave them in that grouping?

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    1. I think it's pretty rare that trees have different leaves. Mulberry trees also have differing leaves, but I don't know of any others. I've been thinking about taking out that pine tree because that corner seems rather crowded. I like having evergreens, though, so I'm still waffling! I have little pine trees growing all over my backyard, though, so they definitely like it there. Mr. Red House wants me to dig them up and make a pine tree grove.

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    2. Now is a good time to move the pine trees -- in the winter and while they are young. Does your ground freeze? Make the grove as far from the house as possible so you won't have to worry about storms.

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  5. Sassafras is one of my favorite trees. Between the different shaped leaves, the fall color, the yummy scent and the way it rapidly colonizes an area, what's not to love??

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  6. Hmm! You learn something new every day, who would have thought it! I have never heard about Sassafras trees before, interesting story, thanks for sharing :-)

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  7. Thanks for the interesting history on sassafras! I am like you: I love them for their beauty!

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  8. Hi Indie
    That was great information about sassafras that I never knew! It is a lovely tree and it seems to have excellent fall colour. That's always a bonus.

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  9. I have heard of this tree but never saw one...love the leaves.

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