Native to Northeastern America and eastern Asia, the sassafras tree is a deciduous tree species in the family Lauraceae. Botanically, it is known as Sassafras albidum, and one can find a large variety within this family, like White sassafras, Red sassafras, Silky sassafras, Chinese sassafras or Tzumu, Taiwanese sassafras, etc.
This tree is not only distinct in its use, but also the way it grows and looks. Used for many years by early settlers, it has now come under scrutiny for its carcinogenic properties.
It is a deciduous tree that can attain a height of nearly 35 meters, with a crown spread of nearly 20 meters. It has wide spreading, slender, and smooth branches with an orange-brown deeply furrowed bark. A young sassafras usually has a green bark, which changes to brown once it reaches maturity. Every part of the tree is fragrant.
What makes this tree distinct from others is its leaf. A single tree can easily have three different types of leaf patterns on it at one time. One of the interesting facts about this tree is that its leaves can be un-lobed oval, bi-lobed, tri-lobed, and very rarely, even five-lobed.
The leaves are about 10-20 cm long, and produce a citrusy scent on crushing when young. The leaves are vibrant green in color, which changes in fall to orange, red, yellow, and/or purple. In spring, this tree bears tiny five-petaled yellow flowers, male and female on separate trees. In late summer, it bears blue oval shaped fruits.
The native Americans used this tree for many medicinal purposes. As it belongs to the Lauraceae family, its aromatic foliage was used to distill oil, which was used to make soaps, perfumes, and toothpaste. The yield of pure sassafras oil, which mostly contains safrole, is quite low, as a lot of root bark is also required for this purpose.
The root is used to favor tea by seeping it in it, and homemade root beer is made by fermenting the root with another natural sweetener. A spice known as filé is also made by drying up the leaf and grinding it. Being antiseptic in nature, parts of the tree are used to treat fevers, cold, diarrhea, bee stings, nosebleeds, arthritis, etc.
However, the use of sassafras oil and its allied products was banned by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in 1960, amidst negative reports that the safrole could cause irreversible damage to the liver and cause certain types of cancer. Subsequently, even sassafras tea was also banned in 1976.
Although mired in controversy regarding its safe edibility by humans, its blue fruits and green leaves are a source of a food for birds like the Northern mockingbird, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, quails, flycatchers, etc. The leaves, along with the twigs, are summer and winter food for the white-tailed deer, among many other animals.
Sassafras tree facts also include its rich etymology. A Spanish physician and botanist, Nicolas Monardes, named this tree Sassafras, which is a corrupted Spanish word for saxifrage. This tree definitely has its share controversy, but I guess its fall foliage color pretty much makes it a blissful vision.