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Sassafras is a genus of three extant and one extinct species of deciduous trees in the family Lauraceae, native to eastern North America and eastern Asia.

Sassafras trees grow from tall and 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. It can be used to make a serviceable bow if properly worked. All parts of the plants are very fragrant. The species are unusual in having three distinct leaf patterns 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 flowers are five-petaled and bloom in the spring; they are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees. The fruit are 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, Kentuckymarker.

The name "Sassafras," applied by the botanist Nicolas Monardes in the sixteenth century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for saxifrage.

Species



Usage

Steam distillation of dried root bark produces an essential oil consisting mostly of safrole that once was extensively used as a fragrance in perfumes and soaps, food and for aromatherapy. The yield of this oil from American sassafras is quite low and great effort is needed to produce useful amounts of the root bark. Commercial "sassafras oil" generally is a by-product of camphor production in Asia or comes from related trees in Brazilmarker. Safrole is a precursor for the clandestine manufacture of the drug MDMA (ecstasy), and as such, its transport is monitored internationally.

Importance to Livestock and Wildlife

Sassafras leaves and twigs are consumed by white-tailed deer in both summer and winter. In some areas it is an important deer food. Sassafras leaf browsers include groundhogs, Marsh Rabbits, and American Black Bears. Rabbits eat sassafras bark in winter. American Beavers will cut sassafras stems. Sassafras fruits are eaten by many species of birds including Bobwhite Quail, Eastern Kingbirds, Great Crested Flycatchers, Phoebes, Wild Turkeys, Gray Catbirds, Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, and Northern Mockingbirds. Some small mammals also consume sassafras fruits.

For most of the above mentioned animals, sassafras is not consumed in large enough quantities to be important. Carey and Gill rate its value to wildlife as fair, their lowest rating.

Culinary uses

The dried and ground leaves are used to make filé powder, a spice used in the making of some types of gumbo.

The roots of Sassafras can be steeped to make tea and were used in the flavoring of root beer until being banned by the FDA. Laboratory animals that were given oral doses of sassafras tea or sassafras oil that contained safrole developed permanent liver damage or various types of cancer. In humans liver damage can take years to develop and it may not have obvious signs.

In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil and safrole in foods and drugs based on the animal studies and human case reports. Several years later sassafras tea was banned, a ban which lasted until the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994.

Sassafras tea can also be used as an anticoagulant.

Sassafras was a commodity prized in Europe as a cure for gonorrhea.

References

  1. & 1987. "Middle Eocene Dicotyledonous Plants from Republic, Northeastern Washington". United States Geological Survey Bulletin 1597:13
  2. Noble Plant Image Gallery Sassafras (includes photo of five-lobed leaf)
  3. Flora of North America: Sassafras
  4. Arboretum Trompenburg: Sassafras photo
  5. Kamikoti, S. (1933). Ann. Rep. Taihoku Bot. Gard. 3: 78
  6. This section incorporates text from a public domain work of the US government:


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