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SASSAFRAS: Uses and Cultivation

 

by Joan Russell, Freelance Food Writer

See also: Sassafras 1

Sassafras is known as white sassafras, root beer tree, ague tree and saloop. It is legendary for its use in making tea and for use as a tonic to purify the blood. It grows as a small tree in clumps in old fields and at the woods edge because it spreads by underground runners.  In the mountains it will grow to sixty feet tall. The American sassafras is cultivated primarily for the bark of its root. There is some controversy over the oil obtained from the root bark called oil of sassafras as it contains safrol, which is a substance known to cause cancer. The oil has been banned from use in food in the US.

BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a deciduous ornamental tree and shrub of the laurel family. They are small to large trees with thick furrowed dark reddish brown bark at maturity. The bark, roots, branches, leaves flowers and fruits contain oils that give off a pleasant spicy odor when broken or crushed.  The leaves are oval, mitten shaped or three-divided.  They bear either male or female flowers. Flowering is in the spring and they are grouped in hanging clusters of greenish yellow color.   The fruit is dark blue berries. The tree grows 32-50 feet in height. Sassafras can be grown as a small tree or shrub or makes a good canopy tree for woodland gardens.

Sassafras is grown throughout the eastern United States. The tree’s other names are  saxifrax, sassafrac, gumbo filĂ©, green stick, cinnamon wood and golden elm.

The red sassafras is identified by some botanists as (Sassafras albidum molle). The leaves of the red sassafras make a good addition to candy and icing. It has soft hairiness on the leaves and twigs.

Sassafras is a very healthy tree and is free of pest and diseases in the U.S. The trees flowers early when about 10 years old and the seeds are produced every 2-3 years.

A BRIEF HISTORY
Fossil records of species of sassafras date from Early Cretaceous time. A hundred million years ago some species of dinosaur may have munched on sassafras leaves. The Indians called this the "green stick" tree because of its smooth, bright-green twigs.  The tree brought hope of cures for illness and wealth to those who used it. The root, called pauame by Native Americans, was one of the first exports from the new world back to England. Sassafras earned its fame from its highly prized oil, used for years to flavor candies, root beer, soap and perfume. The oil was extracted from the roots and stumps of the trees. In 1610, sassafras was so highly prized that England demanded sassafras oil from the colony of Virginia as a condition of charter.

Europeans held sassafras in high regard. They believed it had curative powers. During the bubonic plague, physicians wore nose beaks of potent spices, such as sassafras, to ward off the disease.

Sassafras also was popular as a drink and, on London street corners served up "saloop," a drink made of sassafras tea laced with hot milk.

In 1596 Frances Drake brought the roots of the sassafras from North America to England. Sassafras tea gained acceptance as a cure all. The oil has been used to control lice and treat insect bites. The oil caused skin irritation in some people however. They make soaps, and perfume with the oil.  The tea made from the root has been used for colds, kidney ailments, rheumatism, skin eruptions.  The trees were popular with American Indian for its  wide variety of uses.

 

USES IN FOOD
The leaves can be mixed in salads and used as a thickening agent in soups. Older leaves Can be dried and turned into powder.  The oil after the removal of safrol in US is used in root beer. Root beer was made back in the 19th century.  The original recipe was a fermented mixture of water, molasses or sugar and the plant extracts.

File powder, which is ground sassafras leaves, is an important ingredient in Louisiana Creole and Cajun cookery.  The Choctaw Indians made it for gumbo soup.  The roots makes sassafras tea. One recipes is wash the roots, beat to a pulp with a hammer, boil with water and sugar until the tea. has red-dish amber color, a heady aroma and pleasant taste. Some people serve the tea with sugar honey or milk. A pound of roots will make a gallon of tea.
 
It is used to make candy and jelly.  The candy is made from grated bark, boiled strained then poured into boiling sugar then let harden and break into small pieces. The jelly is made from two cups strong sassafras tea and one package powdered pectin.  Add three cups strained honey. Strain and put in Jars let jelly thicken slowly.

CULTIVATION
The propagation of sassafras is simple.  Fresh seeds are known to give best results. They should be sown immediately in a cold frame and begin to germinate in the spring.   Stored seed will need four months of cold stratification at 4 degrees.  The seeds should be soaked 24 hours in warm water then mixed in with some damp compost. They should be put in the salad compartment of the fridge for 3 to 4 months. As soon as they are large enough to handle the seedlings should be put into individual pots to grow in the greenhouse for at least the first winter before planting outside. This is recommended to protect the trees by growing them indoors the first year before planting them outside.

Other methods of propagation are the suckers from the tree can be dug up in late winter. If they are well rooted they can be planted in permanent spot. You can pot the suckers and then place them in a lightly shaded places in the greenhouse until they grow away strongly. Root cutting can be taken from the suckers.  These cuttings should be about 1 to 2 cm long taken in December and planted horizontally in pots in the greenhouse. It is recommended to grow them inside the greenhouse the first year before planting them in their permanent position. The plant prefers deep fertile well drained lime free neutral soil soil in sun or light shade. The trees should be protected from frost.

CONCLUSION
There are 3 species of sassafras found in central mainland China, Taiwan and the third in eastern North America. Neither of the oriental sassafras trees are cultivated in North America.

Next time you want to plant a new tree in your garden or yard consider cultivating the Sassafras tree.  It is time consuming but well worth it. Not only does it provide an ornamental Addition but you can use the leaves and roots to make tea, candy or jam.

REFERENCES:
Folklore and Odysseys of Food and Medicinal Plants, Ernst & Johanna
Lehner, Tudor Publishing Company, 1962
Foxfire 2, Edited by Eliot Wigginton, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York 1973
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages  http://www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl/
Manual of The Trees of North America, Charles Sprague Sargent, Dover Publications, New York 1965
“Plants for A Future” by Peter Brown November 5, 1999
Trees of North America, Thomas S. Elias, Van Nostrand Reinhold and Company 1980
Stalking the Good Life, by Euell Gibbons, David McKay Company, Inc. New York 1971
 

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