Lauraceae (Laurel Family); Subfamily Lauroideae, Cinnamomeae Tribe, Cinnamominae Subtribe
Forms and Subspecies
The species is divided into two varieties whose appearance is very similar but whose geographical distribution is somewhat distinct:
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. Albidum
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. molle (Raf.) Fern.
Laurus sassafras L.
Persea sassafras Spreng.
Sassafras officinale Th. Nees et Eberm.
Sassafras officinalis Nees et Eberm.
Sassafras sassafras (L.) Karst.
Sassafras variifolium (Salisbury) O. Kuntze
Sassafras variifolium (Salisbury) O. Kuntze var. albidum (Nutt.) Fern.
Ague tree, cinnamon wood, fenchelholz, fenchelholzbaum, laurus sassafras, nelkenzimtbaum, pavane, saloop, sassafrasbaum, sassafras tree, sassafrax, sassafrax tree, saxifrax, sommerlorbeer
North American Indians were already drinking a tea of sassafras root cortex in pre-Columbian times for stimulant, tonic, and medicinal purposes. In 1582, sassafras wood was included in lists of German medicines under the names lignum pauamum, lignum floridum, and sassafrasbaum (Schneider 1974, 3:230*).
The name sassafras is apparently a corruption of the Spanish word for the genus Saxifraga, which the Spanish botanist Monardes coined in the sixteenth century. Even into the twentieth century, a sassafras tea with milk and sugar known as saloop was sold on many London street corners in the early mornings (Grieve 1982, 715*).
During the American Civil War, the root cortex was used as a substitute for Chinese tea (Camellia sinensis) (Havard 1896, 45*). Until recently, it was also used in the United States as a flavoring agent in root beer, a nonalcoholic soft drink (Bremness 1995, 83*). In the southern states, dried, young leaves are used as a spice in gumbo, a Creole dish.
This illustration of a Mexican plant called sasafrás, presumably the oldest illustration of a plant of this name, may represent Elaphrium pubescens Schlecht. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)
Entire forests of the tree are occasionally found along the Atlantic Coast from northern Florida to Canada. The variety albidum occurs from Maine west to Michigan and Illinois and south to Virginia and Arkansas. The variety molleis found from Maine to New York; in Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas; and as far south as Florida and Texas (Zander 1994, 500*).
The tree can be propagated from ripe seeds that have not yet dried, from cuttings, or from root scions. The tree thrives in almost all types of soil but does best in good topsoil. It requires a temperate climate (Grubber 1991, 58 f.*).
The plant is cultivated for pharmaceutical purposes primarily in the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and reportedly in northern Mexico and Taiwan as well (Bertram and Abel 1994, 611).
This deciduous tree, which can grow as tall as 30 meters, bears foliage that is green in summer and golden red in autumn. The thick bark is deeply furrowed and has a different structure in each of the two varieties. The clusters of small yellow flowers appear before the new leaves. The small blue fruits (pea-sized drupes) are attached to red stalks.
The sassafras tree is particularly recognizable by the shape of its leaves. The tree develops three different forms of leaves, each of which appears on a separate branch. The smallest form is oval, while the somewhat larger form is oval with an indentation (two-lobed). The largest and most frequent (three-lobed) form is deeply digital with two indentations. The tree also can be identified by the typical scent of safrole, which is exuded when the leaves are rubbed or crushed.
The sassafras tree can be confused with the other two members of the genus, Sassafras tzumu (Hemsl.) Hemsl. and Sassafras randaiensis (Hay.) Rehd. (Bertram and Abel 1994, 610).
—Root pith (sassafras lignum, lignum sassafras, sassafras wood, lignum pavanum, fenchelholz)
—Essential oil, obtained from the root pith through steam distillation (sassafras oil, sassafras aetheroleum, oleum sassafras, sassafrasöl, fenchelholzöl, essence de sassafras)
—Root cortex (= root bark; sassafras radix, sassafras cortex, fenchelholzrinde)
This leaf shape is characteristic of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum var. albidum).
This illustration of the American sassafras tree may in fact be the earliest European representation of the plant. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)
The very aromatic root cortex can be obtained from the living tree without killing it. A hole is dug to reveal a piece of the root (no more than one third). The root cortex is then carefully removed. Care must be taken not to damage the inner cortex so the tree is able to regrow the root cortex that has been removed (Grubber 1991, 59*).
Other Species of Sassafras
Other trees are also known as sassafras in North America: Magnolia virginiana is known as swamp sassafras, Massoja aromatica is called Sassafras goesianum, and Umbellularia californica is known as California sassafras (Grieve 1982, 716*).
The tree Mespilodaphne sassafras Meister is called Brazilian sassafras and is also used as a counterfeit for true sassafras wood (Bertram and Abel 1994, 615).
The essential oil obtained from Ocotea cymbarum H.B.K. (Lauraceae) is permitted to be sold under the name sassafras oil or Brazilian sassafras oil (Bertram and Abel 1994, 611).
In Australia, the name sassafras is applied to trees from the Family Monimiaceae that “smell of sassafras” and also contain safrole: Atherosperma moschatum Labill (southern sassafras, black sassafras) and Doryphora sassafras Endl. (real sassafras, yellow sassafras, canary sassafras). Both trees are used to produce a “bush tea” with stimulant and tonic properties. In addition to the essential oil, the bark of Doryphora also contains the alkaloid dryphorine (Cribb 1984, 172, 174*).
Preparation and Dosage
Sassafras formerly was used as an additive to beer and to perfume tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) (Schneider 1974, 3:231*).
To prepare as a tea (called sassafras tea or saloop), add 30 g of chopped root cortex to 0.5 liter of boiling water. A normal dosage for a blood depurative tea is regarded as 2.5 g of chopped root (sassafras wood). Pour boiling water over this amount and strain after ten minutes (Wichtl 1989). As a single dose, 5 g of sassafras wood can be ingested (Bertram and Abel 1994, 617).
One or two drops of sassafras oil, dissolved in alcohol, can be taken several times daily as a medicinal dosage. The EB6 lists 0.1 g as a single dosage (Bertram and Abel 1994, 612). A good starting dosage for aphrodisiac and psychoactive purposes is regarded as 100 to 200 mg of the oil (Gottlieb 1973, 45*). This dosage should be increased only with great care, as overdoses can result in kidney irritation (Pahlow 1993, 418*). One teaspoon of sassafras oil can induce “vomiting, dilated pupils, stupor and collapse” (Grieve 1982, 716*). The safrole present in the oil is regarded as carcinogenic (Bertram and Abel 1994, 612 f.). In former times, sassafras oil was often mixed with opium (cf. Papaver somniferum) when the latter was administered to children in order to cover up its horribly bitter taste. For medicinal use, sassafras oil was usually mixed with Guaiacum spp. and sarsaparilla (Smilax regellii Kill. et C.V. Morton) (Grieve 1982, 716*).
In Louisiana, filé (dried, powdered young sassafras leaves) are used to bind soups and to prepare gumbo (Bremness 1995, 83*).
To date, no ritual use of sassafras, especially for psychoactive purposes, has been documented. The use of sassafras oil as an inebriant did not become well known until MDMA was made illegal (cf. herbal ecstasy).
Gumbo (Atlantic Records, 1972), an album from Dr. John, the Night Tripper (the “high priest of voodoo rock”), is named after the Creole dish gumbo, which is prepared with sassafras leaves. Whether the ingestion of copious amounts of sassafras leaves contributed to the hallucinations immortalized on the album is unknown.
In Europe, sassafras is regarded as a panacea (Schneider 1974, 3:230*). Sassafras oil was administered internally in folk medicine to treat physical and mental debility, gout, menstrual complaints, urine retention, and inflammations of the urethra and bladder. It was applied externally to soothe the pains of rheumatism and insect stings (Bertram and Abel 1994, 612). The oil was used internally to alleviate the cramps and pains associated with menstruation (Grieve 1982, 716*). It also was used to induce abortions, and it should be avoided when pregnancy is desired (Bertram and Abel 1994, 612).
In central Europe, teas made from the leaves or the root cortex were especially popular as a blood depurative (Bremness 1995, 83*; Wichtl 1989, 425).
The mother tincture (Sassafras hom. HAB34, Sassafras officinale hom. HPUS88), obtained by extracting the dried root cortex in 90% ethyl alcohol, is used in homeopathic medicine (Bertram and Abel 1994, 617).
The root cortex typically contains between 6 and 9% essential oil whose primary constituent is safrole (approximately 80%). Also present are safrole camphor (= camphor/D-camphor; cf. Cinnamomum camphora), tannins (sassafrid), red tannic acid (an orange dye), resin, wax, mucilage, sugar, and sitosterol (Bertram and Abel 1994, 611; Grieve 1982, 715*). A recent study has provided further knowledge of the composition of the essential oil; it is 85% safrole, 3.25% camphor, and 1.1% methyleugenol. Each of the other components—including estragol, eugenol, elemicine, myristicin (cf. Myristica fragrans), 5-methoxyeugenol, and apiol—make up less than 1% of the mixture (Kamden and Gage 1995). According to a different analysis, the essential oil obtained through steam distillation of the root cortex consisted of 90% safrole, with the remaining 10% composed of 30% 5-methoxyeugenol, 18% asarone, 5% camphor, 7% coniferaldehyde, 11% piperonylacrolein, and traces of apiol, l-menthone, αphellandrene, β-phellandrene, thujone, anethol, caryophyllene, copaene, elemicine, eugenol, myristicin, α-pinene, and syringaaldehyde (Sethi et al. 1976).
The root cortex also contains alkaloids (aporphine and benzylisoquinoline derivatives, boldine, isoboldine, norboldine, cinnamolaurin, norcinnamolaurin, reticuline) (Bertram and Abel 1994, 614; Chowdhury et al. 1976; Wichtl 1989, 425).
The root pith consists of some 1 to 2% essential oil (of which approximately 80% is safrole). The seeds are 60% fatty oil with linoleic and oleic acids (Bertram and Abel 1994, 611, 616).
There are few reports of psychoactive effects resulting from use of the tea: “Large dosages have stimulating and sudoriferous effects” (Schuldes 1995, 69*). Ingestion of high dosages of sassafras oil results in profound stimulation, erotic excitation, perceptual changes, and particularly a more profound sensitivity in the emotional domain. The effects are sometimes described as MDMA-like and empathogenic (cf. Myristica fragrans). Higher dosages also can result in unpleasant side effects (cold sweats, cramping of the chewing muscles, nervousness, unease).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Sassafras oil has been illegal in the United States since 1960, when it was claimed that it was carcinogenic (Kamden and Gage 1995). Because sassafras oil is a suitable precursor for the illegal manufacture of MDMA, it is now a controlled substance worldwide and is almost never sold, even in small amounts. Even the raw plant material (root wood, root cortex) has practically disappeared from the market. In the United States, and especially in the southern states, the only product still available is powdered sassafras leaves, which are sold as gumbo filé.
This bark, whose structure is typical for Sassafras albidum var. albidum, contains an essential oil that smells of safrole.
The bark of Sassafras albidum var. molle has a very different structure.
“Sassafras may have been the first tree to be brought to Europe from the Americas.”
KRÄUTER, GEWÜRZE UND HEILPFLANZEN [HERBS, SPICES, AND MEDICINAL PLANTS]
See also the entry for essential oil.
Bertram, Barbara, and Gudrun Abel. 1994. Sassafras. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:610–19. Berlin: Springer.
Chowdhury, Bejoy K., Manohar L. Sethi, H. A. Lloyd, and Govind J. Kapadia. 1976. Aporphine and tetrahydrobenzylisoquinoline alkaloids in Sassafras albidum. Phytochemistry 15:1803–4.
Kamden, Donatien Pascal, and Douglas A. Gage. 1995. Chemical composition of essential oil from the root bark of Sassafras albidum. Planta Medica 61:574–75.
Sethi, Manohar L., G. Subbu Rao, B. K. Chowdhury, J. F. Morton, and Govind J. Kapadia. 1976. Identification of volatile constituents of Sassafras albidum root oil. Phytochemistry 15:1773–75.
Wichtl, Max. 1989. Sassafrasholz. In Teedrogen, ed. Max Wichtl, 424–25. Stuttgart: WVG.