Botany Circular No. 19 Fla. Dept. AgripMl Servi rs
March 1983 Divisiod Blp lant Indus ry
SASSAFRAS, A MEDICINAL PLANT AND MAR 26 1987
K. R. Langdon
Long before the arrival of white men in North America, the American Indians used
a plant now known as sassafras, Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees (Fig. 1) for medicinal
purposes, drink, and flavoring. Early in the Colonial Period the fame of this small
tree had spread far and wide. Its purported healing properties had created great
demand for sassafras, particularly in Europe, and many fortune-hunting parties ex-
ported sassafras. Great fortunes never came, however, and the trade soon diminished.
Yet, through the years sassafras has remained popular as a folk medicine, spring
tonic, and refreshing drink where it grows naturally in the eastern United States,
particularly in the South (2,4,5,7,8).
Sassafras over most of its
range is usually a small tree up to
50 ft (15 m), but has been reported
occasionally to reach heights of 90
to 100 ft (27.4-30.5 m) with at
least one confirmed measurement of
over 88 ft (26.9 m). In the sandy
soils of peninsular Florida, it
grows more commonly as a shrub
rarely exceeding 10 ft (3 m) and
S* often occurs as an understory shrub
Sin open woods. It also grows as a
shrub at the northern limits of its
range. Throughout most of its
range, it grows in more-or-less
exposed sites along ridges and at
the edges of woods as well as fence-
rows and abandoned fields. It is
S2 seldom cultivated, even though it
X 3 makes a reasonably good ornamental.
DESCRIPTION: Leaves alternate,
simple, deciduous, thin, aromatic,
blades 8-13 cm long, ovate or ellip-
Fig. 1. Sassafrass albidum tic, cuneate at base, bright green
(After West & Arnold 1956) above, glabrous and glaucous below,
often hairy on the veins, entire or
with an additional lobe on one or both sides, often having a mitten-shaped appearance,
lobes acute to obtuse; petioles about 25 mm; flowers March-April, dioecious (male and
female flowers on separate trees), axillary, in racemes about 25 mm long; sepals 6,
spreading, yellowish green; corolla absent; stamens in 3 groups of 3 each, the inner-
most glandular at base, anthers 4-celled, filaments flattened, elongate; pistillate
flowers with erect columnar style, depressed stigma, and 6 sterile stamens; fruit a
drupe, blue, lustrous, about 13 mm long, oblong to spherical, borne on a thickened red
pedicel, pulpy; stone solitary, light brown; twigs yellowish green, later turning
S orange-red, mucilaginous, at first pubescent, becoming glabrous (1,3,7,8,9).
Botanist, Office of Systematic Botany, P. 0. Box 1269, Gainesville, FL 32602
The range of sassafras extends over most of the eastern half of the U.S. within
the aredhwftom the l. antic coast, Central Florida (Orange Co.) (9), and the Gulf coast
vest and north tb East Texas, eastern Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, extreme
southern Ontario, and the southwestern tip of Maine. It grows best in well drained,
ertilei -4andy loan or clay loam soil, but will tolerate a wide variety of soil types.
Reproduction is by root sprouts and by seed scattered mainly by birds. The fruit is
consumdby at least 28 species of birds, and the leaves as well as fruit by several
species ot mammals'.e
Sassafras has long been used as a tea and spring tonic to "thin the blood and
purify the system." The roots and other plant parts can be used for this purpose, but
apparently the best part to use is the bark of the roots, especially after removing
the outer corky layers. What is usually sold in specialty stores, though, is chipped
roots including wood as well as bark. A strong brew of the hot tea has been used as a
sudorific. A weaker tea, sometimes with cream and sugar, is a pleasant beverage to
many. Mucilage of sassafras prepared from the roots has been used to soothe eye
inflammations. Oil of sassafras, a volatile oil distilled from the roots, has been
used as a flavoring material for a variety of products, including medications and soft
drinks. It has also been used as an antiseptic and disinfectant. The oil is said to
be narcotic in large amounts and may cause liver damage. A preparation known as
gumbo-file (or -filet) made from the dried and powdered young, tender leaves was used
originally by the Indians and now primarily in Creole cooking to flavor soups (2,
Safrole, the main constituent of sassafras oil, has been shown to induce liver
cancer in laboratory rats at 0.5 and 1.0% of the diet (5,6). This is a high con-
centration. Occasional use of small amounts of sassafras tea probably would not be
harmful. At one time sassafras, carcinogenic though it is, was used in addition to
surgery to treat cancer in Virginia (6). The success of such treatment was not docu-
mented and now would be considered unwise at best. Because of its carcinogenic prop-
erties, sassafras is no longer used as a flavoring for soft dirnks and other products
(5,6). As a natural product it is still consumed by many southerners and by health
1. Bailey, L. H. 1961. (1929). The standard cyclopedia of horticulture. Mac-
Millan, New York. p. 3081-3082.
2. Fernald, M. L., A. C. Kinsey, and R. C. Rollins. 1943. Edible wild plants of
eastern North America. Harper & Row, New York. 452 pp.
3. Fowells, H. A., compiler. 1965. Silvics of forest trees of the United States.
Agric. Handbook 271, USDA Forest Service, Washington. 762 pp.
4. Hill, A. F. 1939. Economic Botany. McGraw-Hill, New York. 592 pp.
5. Johnson, C. H. 1961. Important medicinal plants of Florida. Bull. 14, Florida
Dept. Agric., Tallahassee. 51 pp.
6. Lewis, W. H., and M. P. F. Elvin-Lewis. 1977. Medical Botany. Wiley, New York.
7. Vines, R. A. 1953. Native East Texas trees. Houston Museum of Natural History.
8. 960. Trees, shrubs, and woody vines of the Southwest. Univ. of Texas
Press, Austin. 1104 pp.
9. West, E., and L. E. Arnold. 1956. The native trees of Florida. Univ. of Florida
Press, Gainesville. 218 pp.
Contribution No. 20, Office of Systematic Botany.