Sassafras Tree Identification

 Sassafras Tree Identification

Sassafras Tree Identification

American sassafras (Sassafras albidum) isn’t strictly southern. It grows naturally throughout the eastern United States, from Maine to Florida, as far west as eastern Texas and all the way to the Atlantic coast. Sassafras’ leaves may be unilobed, bilobed ("mitten leaves"), or trilobed, and all of these leaf types may grow on a single branch. The trees’ autumn foliage becomes a dramatic range of yellows, reds, and even deep purple tones.

To identify S. albidum during leafless times of year, check for deeply furrowed bark and curiously identical neighbors; sassafras roots extend horizontally beneath the soil surface, and send up nearby shoots or “suckers” which can grow into adults. From our point of view this appears to be a thicket of free-standing individual trees, but they are in fact genetically identical clones of the original tree, still connected via their underground roots. In the spring, a careful observer could also distinguish male and female trees by their small flowers. The species is dioecious, meaning that individuals (and their clones) bear either male or female flowers, but never both. The larger male flower bears nine stamens, while the smaller female flower has one pistil at its center. Later in the season, female trees bear “fruits” that mature to a deep purple on pink stalks.  

Sun-loving adult sassafras trees average 30 to 50 feet in height, with a branch spread typically 2/3 of the height and a trunk size ranging 1-3 feet in diameter. Southern sassafras trees may grow to be larger than their northern counterparts. The current champion sassafras grows in Owensburg, Kentucky. At 100 feet tall and 21 feet in circumference, this individual’s age is estimated at 300 years. So, this adult tree’s birth happened sometime around the American Revolution. Legend has it that the tree was slated for removal during a 1950’s street-widening project, but was saved by a gun-wielding Kentucky woman named Grace Rush, who refused to let anyone near the trunk until the governor himself assured her the tree would be left intact.

Sassafras has a rich history in American commerce and medicine. Different parts of the tree have been used for a variety of applications, from the roots to the trunk, twigs, and leaves, but by far the most important property of sassafras is its smell. Roots and young twigs, when crushed, give off a scent something like a blend of orange and vanilla, earning the species a nickname of "cinnamonwood.” For centuries this botanical aroma was associated with healing properties. 

Brought to the European market by early explorers, sassafras became an important American export for nearly three hundred years. Roots were "grubbed" out of American ground, and were sliced and steamed in a tedious and firewood-intensive process to distill the fragrant oil. Used in products as varied as soaps, perfumes, teas, insect repellents, insect bite relief lotions, and candy flavorings, the true sassafras boom came from "tonics," lucrative beverages that promised to keep drinkers in youthful good health. The tonic craze settled in the mid-twentieth century but the flavors of sassafras have continued through the years, morphing into modern-day root beer.

Chemists characterized the essential oil's aromatic compound as safrole, and that's where the sassafras story starts to take a turn for the worse. In the 1960’s and '70s, FDA scientists designed experiments to test lethality of compounds by feeding them to rats in extremely high concentrations (you might recognize the effects of these experiments in the little red “WARNING” text on Sweet 'N Low packets). Many "sassafras enthusiasts" are still, 40 years after the fact, peeved by the legislation and point out that an adult human would have to consume impossibly huge quantities of pure sassafras oil to reach this dosage. Protestations aside, concern remains that long-term ingestion (even at lower levels) could cause cancer, and the FDA carcinogen-based regulations remain in place. The only domestic sassafras products that may be commercially sold for food use must be certified "safrole-free." Remember sassafras root beer? Its flavoring, one of the first regulatory casualties, is now artificially derived. Gumbo connoisseurs, however, continue the time-honored use of filé powder (made from legal dried sassafras leaves) to thicken and flavor their Cajun creations, and southerners are still known to enjoy a regular cup of sweetened home-harvested sassafras tea -- even our own Robin Wade.

Furniture, thankfully, is not subject to FDA or DEA regulation, and we are still free to enjoy the beautiful benefits of sassafras in our environment. Sassafras wood has an attractive grain and light golden color, and as Robin points out, gives the workshop a delightful fragrance. Though less common than it once was, sassafras wood works well and has been used to make tables, benches, and more. And let’s not forget, of course, the homemade tea.