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The singular sassafras.

Fact, folklore, and fantasy about this unique understory tree with the mitten leaves.

When I was a boy growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, my grandmother, who raised me, was a firm believer in the tonic quality of sassafras tea. At the farmer's market, for 10 cents, she would buy a packet of sassafras root bark, and from it brew an ambrosial infusion. Sweetened with sugar, the tea was delicious, hot or cold. She claimed that it purified the blood and would prolong life.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a well-known tree. According to H.L. Mencken's The American Language (1936), the world sassafras traces, back to 1577 and is of Spanish origin. "Albidum," an adaptation of an Indian term, means whitish.

The natural range of the sassafras is from Maine to New York, Ontario, and Michigan, south to Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas; and east to Florida (see range map of facing page). In the northern portion of its range, the species is little more than a shrub. In the South, it grows to 40 feet or more. The American Forestry Association's National Register of Big Trees lists a 76-foot champion in Kentucky. Knowing Your Trees, a publication of the Association, states that the sassafras may live for 700 to 1,000 years.

Sassafras is the sole representative of its genus in North America. One other species is known in the world - a close relative native to China.

The tree's most distinguishing characteristic is its leaves. On the same tree, three different leaf-forms may be found. The shape may be entire and somewhat elliptical, mitten-shaped with either right-or left-hand lobes, or three-lobed.

When chewed, the leaves and twigs become mucilaginous and promote salivation. This was helpful to me when I was fighting forest fires and water was scarce. If I could find a sassafras tree, I knew I could relieve my thirst by chewing its leaves.

The history of the three is a chronicle of folklore, facts, and fantasy. As Donald Culross Peattie tells it in his informative a Natural History of Trees (1950), Nicholas Monardes compiled a treatise on the resources of the "New Founde Worlde." He reported that the Indians would gather sassafras roots that would cure the "sicke of any grief." Specifically, he claimed that it was a remedy for malaria and other fevers. Peattie's assumption is that the importance of sassafras to the aborigines was in its aromatic qualities. Its potent and agreeable odor was believed to be a defense against evil spirits, according to then-current superstition.

In Europe, the English as well as other nationalities were eager to accept the reputed claims for the Indian medicine. In 1603, a company was formed in Bristol to send two vessels to the New World, principally with the intention of bringing back cargoes of sassafras bark. Thus, sassafras was one of the first, of not first, forest product to be exported from what is not the mid-Atlantic states.

Captain John Smith, English colonist, sent sassafras to England as a medication in the early 1600s. But soon the back was no longer credited with cures, although it was still used as a tonic to cleanse the system. Yet in America, it was known as the argue tree and was used to treat bronchitis, and kidney and respiratory ailments.

In his A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), John Lawson, surveyor-general of North Carolina, reported that the Indians esteemed most highly those plants considered to be curative. "Sassafras was straight, neat, little tree . . . . treasured by the Indians for its aromatic roots, from which, when pounded, a potion could be brewed to refresh or cure, according to one's needs." Lawson marveled at the Indians' success in treating "one of our company for lameness by scratching the same limb with a comb of rattlesnake fangs and applying a dressing of dried and ground sassafras, binding it up well. The patient recovered completely in a day or two."

Mark Gatesby, an English naturalist who spent years in colonial American, wrote a two-volume book, A Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754). He had an interesting comment on sassafras: "The Virtue of this Three is well-known as the great sweetener of the Blood; I shall therefore only add, that in Virginia a strong Decoction of the Root has been sometimes given with good Success for an intermittent fever."

In his North America Sylva (1857), Francois Andre Michaux tells at length about the medicinal virtues of sassafras and reports that they prompted early planting of the tree in Europe. Certainly, it was of the first trees from the colonies to be so introduced.

E.S. and J.G. Harrar, in their Guide to Southern Trees (1962), mention that during early colonial times, the spring tonic that was brewed from roots and twigs was sold in markets for seven or eight cents a pint. The beverage was known as sassafras tea, possibly a concentrate.

Another forgotten sassafras beverage of early days was brewed by country people in the South. It was a beer made by boiling young shoots in water. Molasses was added to the infusion and allowed to ferment. This beer was considered a very salutary drink during the summer.

Oil of sassafras was distilled from the bark and was once extensively employed as a perfume in the manufacture of soaps. It made some bad-tasting medicines taste better, and even flavored candy. Medicinally, the oil is known as a demulcent (a substance capable of soothing abraded mucus membranes) and a emollient (soothing to the skin). In addition, it is diuretic and diaphoretic (able to increase perspiration).

At one time, the production of sassafras oil was a thriving, if local, industry, particularly in Virginia and the Carolinas. Roots were grubbed out of the ground by the ton and then subjected to distillation. The essence obtained was important in the manufacture of patent medicines, pharmaceutical compounds, candies, scented soaps, and perfumes,

The U.S. Food and Drugs Administration then banned sassafras tea for sale in interstate commerce, because of carcinogenic properties. Oil in high dosages was also found to be toxic and is no longer used to flavor soft drinks such as root beer. Safrole, the main constituent, causes tumors in rats. But safrole-free extracts of sassafras may be safely used under certain conditions listed in federal regulations.

The young leaves, when dried and powdered, are used as a thickener for soups. Especially esteemed by the gourmets of the deep South, the powder is known as file (pronounced "fee-LAY") and is used to flavor and thicken the renowned Creole gumbo. Whether the gumbo is made with oysters, crabs, chicken, or crayfish ("crawfish"). it is deliciously nutritious. During the Depression years, when I was in New Orleans, I would go to the old French market and make a meal of bowl of gumbo for 20 cents. Now it costs 10 to 50 times as much.

Sassafras wood is moderately heavy and hard. It is spicy-aromatic and has a characteristic odor. When used as fuel, the wood pops and shoots sparks. Because of its durability, sassafras has been used for fence posts and railroad ties. Before wood was superceded by aluminum and fiberglass for building small boats, sassafras hulls were common. In the South, where individual trees attained suitable girth and height, the logs were hollowed out to make dugout canoes; some lasted for 30 years more. It was also used for cooperage, rails, and house sills.

Moreover, the wood once had, and may still have, a reputation for certain kinds of home construction. In the South, bedsteads were made of sassafras wood because its odors was said to repel bedbugs, those nightly visitors that disturbed slumber. In Appalachia, chicken houses and chicken roosts were often constructed of sassafras because the wood was believed to prevent chicken lice.

Lawson reported that sassafras bark was a favorite food for beavers. The tree provides for its self-reproduction through a liberal yield of seeds scattered by birds. The fruit its eaten by at least 18 species of birds. Through this means, the tree is secure against extinction. It is especially common along fence rows and in abandoned fields, where birds often rest. It is a wide-spread and aggressive weed tree on old fields, especially in the South, where it may become established almost to the exclusion of other species.

When planted as a shade trees or ornamental, its bright green leaves turn orange and scarlet in autumn. It grows readily from seed and sprouts from the roots. Sassafras has no deadly enemies. It is here to stay.

Sipping sassafras tea is gradually becoming a thing of America's past, even in rural areas. But time was when sassafras tea was in pick-me-up, a stimulant of non-alcoholic potency. I began this essay by telling how my grandmother maintained that sassafras tea would prolong life. After partaking of ever so many posts of brew during my boyhood, I am now and octogenarian. Who shall deny that folk medicine has some basis in science?
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Author:Clepper, Henry
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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