Sassafras albidum (or Sassy-frass!, as both Chickadee and Sharkbait call it) is one of four species of deciduous trees in the Sassafras genus (and part of the Laurel family), one of which is extinct. It is native to the eastern US and Canada and commonly found in open woods as part of the understory, and along roadsides and fence lines. Sassafras is easily identified by its unique leaves, which come in three (or four, depending on how you look at it) shapes on the same tree. As Chickadee puts it, sassafrass leaves come in “feather”, “mitten” (which can be right or left-handed, and why some claim there are 4 leaf shapes), or “ghost” shapes. Sassafras flowers in the spring and produces dark blue fruits in late summer/early fall (FYI: fruits are inedible).
Nicholas Monardes, botanist and doctor in 16th century Spain is said to be responsible for naming the Sassafras tree (thought to be a bastardization of the word saxifrage), which was discovered by Ponce de Leon in his quest for the Fountain of Youth (Señor Monardes also has the honor of a genus of herbs including bee balm being named after him, as well as the more dubious claim to an unshakable faith in the curative ability of tobacco smoke). Various Native American tribes used sassafras medicinally, and it was one of the first exports to Europe, while early Colonists popularized the several century long practice of sweetening it with molasses and fermenting it into root beer. Today sassafras has been somewhat vilified as a commercial food product (more about that later), though many herbalists and foragers remain fans, and it is the traditional component of filé powder (used in making gumbo filé).
Personally, I grew up with a bottle of Pappy’s Sassafras Tea Concentrate (which is safrole free) in my momma’s cupboard, and iced sassafras tea was one of my favorite treats. Sassafras has been one of my favorite trees for about as long as I can remember. It smells great, tastes great, is fun to say, and is absolutely spectacular in the fall. And the best part of a sassafras tree is when you spot one on a long, hot, sweaty, buggy hike –sassafras is an awesome skeeter bite remedy (chewing a bite of a fresh leaf and applying it to a mosquito bite reduces the swelling and relieves the itching better than any thing I’ve tried before). The crushed leaves are also reputed to be a decent insect repellent, though I haven’t ever set out to specifically test it out (though I have noticed it keeps the skeeters off your assets when used as on-the-trail toilet paper!).
By and large, sassafras products are not found in stores (file powder in specialty stores and safrole free products being the exception). Since 1960, FDA regulations have banned products containing safrole for internal consumption, due to its potential as a carcinogen that has been demonstrated to cause liver cancer in rats in a laboratory setting (though the actual carcinogenic risk of sassafras in humans is difficult to judge). Even so, many foragers (like me) consider the occasional indulgence in a glass (or mug) of sassafrass tea to be no more harmful than the occasional indulgence in an alcoholic beverage (alcohol, of course, has also been linked to higher incidence of cancers). I make my sassafras tea from the leaves, rather than the root, which contains less safrole (two or three crushed playing card sized leaves to a quart of water makes a nice mild sassafras tea–I like it iced and sweet). Fowever, if you do choose to forage for sassafras, there are there are some things to keep in mind (enter the big fat warning).
Warning: Oil of sassafras has about an 80% safrole content, and the root bark of the tree contains about 6-9% oil of sassafrass, the roots in their entirety contain about 2% oil of sassafrass, and the leaves contain about 1%. In excess, sassafras can cause nausea and vomiting and be toxic in large doses–acute toxicity often presents with profuse sweating, rapid heartbeat, hypertension, and hallucinations (a dose of just 0.66 mg safrole per kg body weight can be hazardous for humans). It is a known emmenagogue and abortificant, and should not be used by pregnant women. Don’t give sassafras to children internally. Persons with liver disease or cancer should avoid sassafras. Check here for more information on sassafras as a medicinal plant, or its toxicity potential.
In herbal magic, sassafras’s uses are centered around health and money, though in Appalachian folklore, a bit of sassafras bark is also said to protect one against the evil eye. Sassafras is associated as a male herb, with the planet Jupiter and the element Fire.