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The Fascinating History of the Sassafras

How to find the tree whose sweet-smelling leaves and bark have made it important to people for centuries.

The following column was written by Graelyn Brashear:

An easily recognizable beauty, sassafras is a tree with a fascinating history.

What it is:

On our coastal plain, sassafras is typically a small tree, often multi-branched and shrubby. It can grow quite large, though, reaching heights of more than 60 feet. Thanks to its leaves, it’s one of the easiest trees to identify in our area.

Sassafras leaves are either oval (with no lobes), mitten-shaped (with two lobes) or what I can never avoid thinking of as dinosaur foot-shaped (with three lobes). You might find all three leaf shapes growing on a single slender branch.

And if you’re in doubt, just snap off a leaf at the base of its stout but tender stem and sniff or chew it. The sweet, spicy smell and pleasant, if slightly medicinal, flavor are giveaways.

Now is a great time to seek out a nearby sassafras, because the trees have striking fall color that’s almost unrivalled in the pinelands. The leaves will turn bright golden yellow, deep red and brilliant purple over the course of the next month.

Where to find it:

Sassafras is a widespread tree, and grows all over the eastern U.S. It loves acid soils and can even grow well in dry and sandy ones, so it’s a common sight in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

You’ll discover the biggest, most robust trees in wetter areas, such as bog edges and along streams.

Why bother:

Many probably know that sassafras has long been used in food and medicine, but few are aware of just how closely the plant has been tied up with human history on the continent.

The plant’s leaves, twigs and roots are fragrant, packed with an essential oil that offers up that spicy smell and taste, and has been believed to hold the cure to a host of human ailments, from hangovers to syphilis.

European newcomers to American seized on its purported medicinal qualities and began harvesting it and shipping it back to the Old World. The plant was at one point American’s second largest export after tobacco.

Since then, sassafras oil has been used in a huge variety of foods, medicines and other products. It used to be a major ingredient in root beer. But the oil contains a hefty amount of safrole, a chemical that was proven in the 1960s to be carcinogenic in rats.

In small amounts, safrole is likely no more dangerous to humans than a lot of other naturally occurring plant compounds that probably evolved as natural pesticides (tomatoes and oranges have them too).

Nevertheless, the FDA banned the use of sassafras extracts that contain safrole. You can still find sassafras-flavored candies and drinks on the market, but they’re made without the offending chemical.

The widespread tree has its roots deep in American folk medicine, though, and people all over the eastern part of the U.S. still cheerfully brew up a reasonably tasty and supposedly healing tea from the twigs and the root bark.

If you want to try your hand at making syrup for your own sassafras soda, check out this recipe (and let us know how it works out!).

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