What Is Sassafras?

Sassafras has mitten-like leaves and aromatic properties. The root bark has been traditionally gathered in the Spring, to be made into a tonic.

Sassafras, sassafras albidum, is an intriguing deciduous understory tree that grows wild in my woods in the Ozarks. Sassafras has mitten-like leaves and aromatic properties. The root bark has been traditionally gathered in the Spring, to be made into a tonic, believed to "thin the blood." Native Americans introduced the tree's medicinal properties to the settlers.

When I moved to the Ozarks, I soon discovered that sassafras was a "money tree" as well. There are people that come here all summer just to buy dried sassafras leaves from gatherers. The payment for the dried leaves is $1.00 a pound, not bad, since sassafras retains quite a bit of its weight after drying, and one can easily make $500, $600 pocket money gathering it. Harvesting the leaves doesn't hurt the tree a bit; soon there are new leaves growing on it. And what happens to the hundreds of pounds of dried sassafras leaves that people harvest and sell? It's ground up and sold to Louisiana folks, who use it to flavor their gumbo's and other dishes, and is called "file," in the dried form.

Sassafras is a native tree that grows wild in deciduous woodlands, thickets, and roadsides from Ontario to Michigan, and south to Florida and Texas. In some places it's also grown as an ornamental tree. The stem of the tree , which can be 10 to 40 feet high, is covered with rough, grayish bark.

Sassafras is quite ornamental with its large leaves that vary dramatically in shape even on the same tree. The leaves are all mitten-like, with varying numbers of "fingers." All parts of the tree are pleasantly aromatic and contain essential oils, giving off a spicy aroma when crushed.

Sassafras is a long-lived and moderately fast growing tree, and it is virtually pest and disease free. It repels mosquitoes and other insects, so it is a beneficial companion plant in the garden. And the dried leaves add a pleasant scent to a room while also helping to keep insects away.

Sassafras is still gathered today for its medicinal value. The tea is used to benefit rheumatism, gout, skin eruptions, scrofula, venereal diseases, liver problems and for fevers. Externally, the tea is used as a poultice for ulcers, sores, bruises and swellings. The dried root bark can be boiled with sugar and water into a thick paste, and used as condiment. The root and the berries can also be used as flavorings. The oil does contain safrole, which is said to have carcinogenic activity and has been banned from use in American foods-although there is plenty of modern research that shows it is less likely to cause cancer than alcohol.

Sassafras can be propagated from seed or from suckers, which are dug in the winter. The seeds are eaten by birds, and some butterflies use sassafras as the "host" plant for their caterpillars. In addition, sassafras adds a brilliant orange to the colors of autumn wherever it grows.

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