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The Strange Tale of Sassafras

December 1, 2016

The Strange Tale of Sassafras

By Lon Drake

In 1586 Sir Francis Drake returned to England from Roanoke Colony with a load of sassafras roots, plus some survivors who told wondrous stories about how this plant had rescued them from sickness and starvation in the wilderness. Its fame spread as a cure-all, and sassafras tea became a favorite drink in England.

By 1602 the price of the roots in London was an incredible 336 pounds sterling per ton. The following year, wealthy investors in Bristol funded a two-ship expedition aimed solely at bringing back as much sassafras as possible. They found the plant in quantity along the south coast of today’s Connecticut, and although altercations developed with the Indians, they succeeded. Others followed. By 1622, Jamestown Colony was required by the Crown to ship 30 tons of roots annually, as part of their charter.

Back then, disease was caused by evil, and sassafras became the anti-evil talisman, leading to the wood being used in bible boxes, spoons, cups, mattress stuffing, and other items that the owner would be reminded by the pleasant odor that the force was with him. But the reality was that it was not living up to the hype, and gradually people abandoned their faith in sassafras and imports dwindled to nothing. But the search for panaceas has continued uninterrupted to the present.

Britton and Brown, reporting on native vegetation existing more than a century ago, list sassafras’ range extending west to Iowa. Rydberg 1932 extends its range west into Nebraska. Peattie, writing much more than a half century ago, specifically says it’s here in southeast Iowa. Today, you would be hard pressed to find any in our landscape, which has been thoroughly overgrazed and/or plowed under, unless you come to my place, where we have been getting acquainted. Incidentally, most guidebooks mention that sassafras has three leaf shapes, often on the same tree. But I count four, because if you look closely there are both left- and right-handed mittens.

Sassafras has a close sister species, spicebush, and both are in the ancient laurel family, which developed in the company of the dinosaurs. Both have little yellow-gold flowers that unfurl early in the spring. Both produce bird berries; sassafras’ are little porcelain blue ovoids held up on bright red stalks, while spicebush‘s are little bright scarlet ovoids decorating the branches. The spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillar feeds on both of their leaves, and little else. Both also have separate male and female plants.

These sister species also have great autumn leaf color. The spicebush leaves all uniformly turn a brilliant clear golden yellow. But a patch of sassafras becomes a riot of orange, yellow, purple and red, every shrub doing its own thing, sometimes every leaf (see photo of a young one in my yard.) So I am finding it to be another interesting native to get involved with.

The uses for sassafras roots as flavoring mostly vanished about 30 years ago, when it was learned that in high dosages the oil caused liver tumors in lab rats. Today, the main culinary use seems to be the powdered leaves, which are an ingredient in filé, used to flavor southern gumbo.

Michael Dirr, the most qualified horticulturalist of our era, says, “On numerous back roads throughout the eastern United States there is no more inspiring sight than a sassafras thicket in full flaming fall color.” If you wish to try growing some here and invite the spicebush swallowtail, go for a mild winter microclimate with full sun and good to very good drainage – and enjoy your own riot of seasonal color.

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Lon Drake

This old guy's favorite large-scale conservation projects include integrating soils, water, plants, and animals, especially native species. I still bike through my South Sycamore stormwater management system from 2001.

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4 responses to “The Strange Tale of Sassafras”

  1. Hetty Hall says:

    I just visited family in Norfolk-Virginia Beach, the very southern tip of Virginia along the coast, and found sassafras to be widespread, although as an understory small tree. It was the first time I had identified it, having tried & failed to grow it in upstate New York sev’l times. In Virginia Beach the fall leaf color was a bright yellow. Meanwhile I have a row of spicebush growing nicely in our yard in a moist and shaded environment. Thanks Lon. I will try growing sassafras here in Solon (good microclimate but no sun).

    • Lon says:

      Hello Hetty, Sassafrass is such a unique plant. Not only does it have different-shaped leaves, even on the same branch, but the different parts also do not smell the same either. To me, the roots smell like root beer (where it was once an ingredient), the trunkwood has a sorta medicinal odor (reminiscent of old-fashioned black cough syrup), and the damaged leaves smell citrusy. Makes me wonder whether long ago it evolved as a hybrid of three related parent species, and still carries some of each parents most useful traits. A mixed parentage might also help explain the different autumn leaf color you have noticed in different climates. Transplanting experiments might help clarify whether climate is a variable for sassafras leaf color. Growing sassafras in shade is outside my experience, but the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station (1974) offers the caution that “If it becomes overtopped in mixed stands, it is one of the first species to die.” Recently I picked up a rumor about baking spicebush berries in oatmeal cookies, but no recipe or guidelines. Do you know about this? Might be fun to prepare as a treat for a future Bur Oak Land Trust annual meeting!
      Cheers! Lon

  2. Marilyn Swanson says:

    I buy Sassafrass Drops at Stringtown Grocery in Kalona and keep them in my purse. If I get a scratchy throat or light cough during a concert or at church, I stick one in my cheek and get immediate relief from my discomfort. The effect is much quicker than the standard Lemon Drops. I’m aware that the primary ingredient is sugar, but I am convinced that the sassafrass makes a huge difference.

    • Lon says:

      Hello Marilyn, I believe it. When I taste and sniff different parts of the living plant, it brings back memories from when I was a teenager with a part-time job in a pharmacy. A variety of products apparently used sassafras flavoring back in the late 1950s.

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