Sassafras Albidum

by John Brouwer

Have you always blamed your aging taste buds for root beer not tasting as good as you remember? Don't blame your age; blame the manufacturers. Up until the mid-1960's root beer was made from the roots of sassafras.

Sassafras has its origins in the Laurel family of trees which were dominant on the earth 80 million years ago whose remains survive in the fossil records. Sassafras is the dominant survivor in North America and is related to the cinnamon tree of India, the camphor tree of China and sweet bay from the Mediterranean.

In common with its cousins in other parts of the world all parts of Sassafras are fragrant, which probably led to its use in native medicine. Crushed young leaves produce a scent similar to lemons.

By the time of the conquest sassafras was a widely used medicinal by the native population of North America. The Spanish conquistadors copied native users and exported sassafras to Europe for wide use in food and medicine. By the mid-1600's sassafras exports to Europe were exceeded only by tobacco.

Sassafras oil was extracted from the root bark and used as a flavoring agent. Root beer, fermented with molasses, is named after the roots of sassafras. Sassafras tea is still widely used as a general tonic that restores and nourishes the body's overall good health and cleanses and stimulates the efficient removal of waste products from the system and purifies the blood.

Today sassafras leaves are still the primary ingredient of "file" powder, the characteristic flavour and thickening agent in southern Creole gumbo.

However, in the 1960's sassafras' primary flavoring agent, safrole, extracted from the roots, was found to cause cancer in mice and consequently banned for use in medicine and food. So it's true: root beer doesn't taste the same as it did in your youth.

The synthesized version of safrole is a precursor chemical in the manufacture of ecstasy. A June news bulletin out of Cambodia reported that 30 tons of safrole extracted from sassafras root, (must be the camphor tree as sassafras doesn't grow in the tropics) was burned by Australian and Cambodia police.

Sassafras is a native Carolinian tree known for its brilliant display of fall colour and aromatic smell. Leaves are mitten-shaped, bright to medium green in summer and change to deep orange, scarlet, purple, and yellow in the fall. Sassafras is also known as mitten tree and tea tree.

Sassafras is a small tree in southern Ontario, since it is at the northern limit of its range within the Carolinian forest. The tree is botanically unusual in having three distinct leaf patterns on the same plant; unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped) and trilobed. Leaves are 6 inches long and 4 inches wide.

Sassafras can light up the world with its flame colours in the fall and as such should be used much more widely as a native landscaping tree.

A sassafras was planted to the right of our co-op entrance this spring. As it matures it should produce a dramatic fall colour display.

June 2008