(Sassafras albidum)

Interesting Information About Plant: 

     Sassafrass is a native plant to North America and was used by the Native Americans for various medicinal cures and a cooking spice (this was recorded as early as 1577).  The Choctaw Indians first used the dried ground leaves as a seasoning and thickener.  In 1578, Sir Walter Raleigh brought it back to England from the Virginia Colony.   The name "Sassafras", applied by the Spanish botanist Monardes in the sixteenth century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for “saxifrage” (a large plant genus). 

     In the early 17th century, English ships were sent to the colonies to collect Sassafras roots to use in the building of forts and other large structures.  These trips became known as the Great Sassafras Hunts.  Sassafras was also one of the first plants traded by the Americans, because as its practical uses (ie - its hard wood) were discovered so were its supposed medical uses.  Sassafras was touted to cure almost any ailment when used in a tea or tonic and was a favorite in England. When a rumor started that sassafras retarded old age, trade peaked. 

     In more recent history, Sassafras oil has been used in making soap and in flavoring drinks such as sassafras tea, sarsaparilla and root beer.  The oil of the Sassafras plant is also very pungent and is said to have a very similar scent to cinnamon.

     In later years, it was discovered that what made Sassafras oil so tasty was a chemical compound “safrole”.  In the 1960’s the FDA banned safrole’s use as an additive after safrole was found to cause liver cancer in rats, and miscarriages in humans.  In the 1970’s, sale of safrole-containing sassafras tea was also banned.  Today’s root beer still contains Sassafras root, however it has been treated to remove the oil which contains the safrole. 

Common Name:  Sassafras

Scientific Name:  Sassafras albidum 

Family Name (Scientific and Common):  Lauraceae (Laurel family)      

Continent of Origin:  North America                                               

Most Distinguishing Morphological Features of This Plant:  Four different types of leaves (3 lobed, 1 simple)

Plant Growth Habit:     Shrub   /   Small Tree   /   Large Tree  (in KY a shrub)

Height at Maturity:   Between 3 – 10 Feet   /   More than 10 Feet  (in KY 3-10 feet)

Life Span:    Perennial

Seasonal Habit:    Deciduous Perennial

Growth Habitat:    Full Sun  /  Partial Sun

Manner of Culture:  Garden (food)  /  Native Species 

Thorns on Younger Stem?   No

Cross Section of Younger Stem:      Roundish  

Stem (or Trunk) Diameter:     Between The Diameter of a Broom-Handle and a Coffee-Mug   /   More Than The Diameter of a Coffee-Mug (in KY on the smaller end)

Produces Brownish Bark?   Yes   (in larger plants) /   No (in KY area, smaller plants)

Bark Peeling in Many Areas?    No

Characteristics of Mature (Brownish) Bark:    Lines Go Up-Down   /   No Mature Bark (all green) (in KY no bark is more common)

Type of Leaf:   Flat, Thin Leaf

Length of Leaf (or Leaflet):   Between the Length of a Credit Card and a Writing-Pen  

Leaf Complexity:    Simple

Shape of Leaf:    Simple  (one of the four types of leaves) /  Palmated-Lobed (the other three types of leaves)

Edge of Leaf?    Smooth 

Leaf Arrangement:  Alternate 

Leaf has Petiole?  Yes  /   No

Patterns of Main-Veins:  Pinnate

Leaf Hairiness:   No Hairs

Color of Foliage in Summer:    Green

Change in Color of Foliage in October:     Changes to Yellow    /    Changes to Reddish-Orange

Flowering Season:   Spring

Flowers:    in Loose Group 

Type of Flower:   Colorful Flower

Color of Flower:   Yellow  /   Green  

Shape of Individual Flower:    Other

Size of Individual Flower:  Smaller than a Quarter  

Sexuality:   Male and Female Flowers on Separate Plants   

Size of Fruit:    Smaller than a Quarter 

Fruit Fleshiness at Maturity?    Fleshy  

Shape of Fruit:    Spherical   

Color of Fruit at Maturity:      Dark Purplish    

Fruit Desirable to Birds or Squirrels?      Yes   

Unique Morphological Features of Plant:   The various shapes of the leaves is very unique (1.  Simple leaf  2.  Mitten shaped leaf (thumb on right side)  3.  Mitten leaf (thumb on left side)  4.  Tri lobed leaf (mitten shaped with thumbs on both right and left sides)

Is the Plant Poisonous:    Part of Plant  (oil from plant contains safrole which can be poisonous if too much is ingested)

Pesty Plant (weedy, hard to control)?    No

Common Name(s):  ague-tree, black ash, cinnamon wood, common sassafras, file-gumbo, gumbo-file, red sassafras, sasafras, sassafac, sassafrac, sassafras, sassafrasso, saxifrax, saxifrax tree, smelling-stick, wah-en-nah-kas, white sassafras.

Louisville Plants That Are Most Easily Confused With This One:  (None found)    


Page prepared:

November 2005

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