Sassafras, a North American tree of the laurel family (lauraceoe), formerly called laurus sassafras, but separated from laurus on account of differences in structure by Nees von Esenbeck, who took the popular name for that of the new genus, and it is now sassafras officinale; the name is said to be of Spanish origin. The tree rarely exceeds 50 ft. in height, and in northern localities is much smaller; it extends from Canada to Louisiana, and is found beyond the Mississippi. In a young and vigorous tree the head is broad and round, with its branches in regular whorls, and the long and irregular spray curves upward, forming a sharp angle with the branches. The bark on young branches is reddish green, and on old trunks reddish ash color with deep and irregular cracks. The leaves vary remarkably, some being ovate and entire, and others broad and three-lobed, and various intermediate forms occur on the same branch. The greenish yellow flowers are dioecious and apetalous, in umbel-like racemes, the calyx being six-parted; the sterile flowers have nine stamens, the anthers four-celled and opening by four valves; the fertile flowers have six rudiments of stamens, and a roundish ovary, which ripens into an ovoid, one-seeded drupe, the size of a large pea, of a deep blue color, and supported upon pedicels, which when the fruit is ripe become thickened and dark red.
The sassafras deserves attention as an ornamental tree, for which it is much more used in England (where it was introduced in 1597) than here. All parts of it are more or less aromatic, from a volatile oil, which is more abundant in the bark of the root than elsewhere; the wood, which is brittle in the growing tree, becomes when seasoned remarkably tough and light, and is used for fishing rods; the trunks are sometimes sawn into boards, which are used for trunks and drawers; it is said that no insects will be harbored by a bedstead made of the wood; sassafras poles have long been used for roosts in poultry houses, as their odor is disagreeable to hen lice. The young shoots and leaves are highly mucilaginous; the pith, obtained from the twigs, is kept in the shops, in slender cylindrical pieces, remarkably light and spongy and very mucilaginous when chewed; a dram to a pint of boiling water forms a demulcent drink in inflammatory diseases, and is used as a soothing eye wash; the mucilage differs from ordinary gum in not being precipitated by alcohol.
The leaves when chewed are not only mucilaginous, but have a peculiar flavor unlike that of the bark; in Louisiana these are dried and pulverized, the fibrous portions being removed, and kept for thickening soups, and making gumbo when okra is not at hand. (See Okra.) The fruit is strongly and unpleasantly aromatic, but is greatly eaten by birds. When the Europeans first visited this country they found the sassafras in use by the Indians, and the sick of Monardes's expedition (1562) having been cured by it, its reputation spread to Europe, and early in the 17th century it was regarded as one of the important articles to be derived from the colonies. The wood, which is much less aromatic than the bark, is still used in England, where it is imported in logs 6 to 12 in. thick with the bark on; these are cut into chips or shavings, which are used with guaia-cum and sarsaparilla to make a sudorific drink used in skin diseases; a tea made of these chips, mixed with milk and sugar, called sa-loop, is sold in the streets of London to laborers as they go to their work in early morning.
In this country the bark of the root is the only portion valued for its aromatic qualities; it is kept in the shops in the dried state in small fragments, which are used for flavoring officinal preparations; an infusion sweetened with molasses and fermented with yeast is used in the southern states as beer. - The oil of sassafras is yielded abundantly by the bark of the root; the roots are used in distillation, and the amount of oil varies with the proportion of the bark from 2 to 4 1/2 per cent.; it is colorless or reddish brown, of specific gravity about 1.09, and when cooled by a freezing mixture deposits crystals of sassafras camphor. Baltimore is the headquarters for this oil, and the annual product is from 15,000 to 20,000 lbs. - In localities where the sassafras tree is abundant it is difficult to clear the lands, as it is very tenacious of life, and every piece of root left in the ground will throw up shoots; the most successful manner of eradicating it is by means of sheep, which will eat off the shoots as fast as they start up.
Sassafras officinale - Leaves, Flowers, and Fruit.