The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Sassafras

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SASSAFRAS, a tree of the laurel family (Sassafras sassafras), characterized by fragrant bark and roots, common in the eastern United States. Since it is readily propagated by seeds or by suckers which spring up from interminable slender root-stocks, and is apparently not liked by cattle, it is one of the first trees to reforest pastures and fields that have the light, moist soil that it affects. It is a veritable pest to one trying to clear land, as the smallest piece of rootstock left in the soil seems to send up a vigorous sprout. Its long roots, however, make it a difficult tree to transplant, unless young. Near the lower Mississippi, the sassafras attains its greatest height (about 100 feet), and is stout, with horizontal rugged branches, so that the foliage has a stratified appearance and a flatfish top; it decreases in size as its northern limit is reached until it becomes only a tall shrub. The bark on old trees is very thick and gray, with longitudinal scaly ridges; on the young twigs it is pale green and easily slips off. The shining, bright-green leaves will range in shape, on one spray, from an oval to a three-lobed outline, the “mitten shape,” with one lobe at the side of the leaf, being characteristic. The flowers appear before the leaves in late winter if sheltered, and are generally unisexual, male and female blooms being found on different trees. They dangle in tassel-like racemes and are honey-colored and honey-scented, and thus attractive to bees. The staminate flowers are apetalous, with a six-lobed calyx, orange-stalked glands and nine stamens; the pistillate flowers have a similar perianth, a pale green ovary and style, and orange rudiments of stamens. The fruits are very brilliant, dark-blue, oblong, thin-fleshed berries, surrounded at their bases as the cup encloses the acorn, with a bright scarlet calyx-tube, borne on a thickened and elongated stalk. Unfortunately they are so soon taken by the birds that they are seldom seen, but the leaves assume distinct tints in autumn, which deepen from soft tones of yellow to dark red.

Sassafras is a member of the laurel family, to which camphor also belongs, and the whole plant, from the roots with the scaly, orange-colored bark to the leaves, is aromatic. Thoreau says of it: “The green leaves bruised, have the fragrance of lemons and a thousand spices.” There is a legend that sassafras odor was wafted to the nostrils of Columbus on his first voyage, and convinced him that land was near.

The roots of sassafras very early in American history became an important article of medicine, worth three shillings a pound, and they were one of the objects for which an English expedition landed in Massachusetts in 1602. It was also called “ague tree,” as a decoction of its bark was supposed to cure that disease. In American household practice, sassafras tea, an infusion of the young shoots and roots, has long been a favorite remedy for colds and a tonic, being a sudorific and stimulant. It is also an ingredient of root-beer. The bark of twigs and the pith are rich in mucilage (as are the leaves), and make a lubricant for oculists, and a yellow powder to thicken Creole gumbos, much as akra is used. The oil of sassafras is used for a perfume for soaps, etc. The wood itself is orange-colored with pale sap-wood, and when stripped of its bark resists decay for some time, while in contact with soil, so that it can be made into fence posts, although too brittle and coarse-grained for most purposes.

Australian sassafras is the name given to several large evergreen trees with aromatic barks, growing in Australia and Tasmania, namely: Atherosperma moschata, Doryphora sassafras and Daphnandia micrantha. Brazilian sassafras, or sassafras nut, is the pichurim bean. Swamp sassafras is the Magnolia glauca.

Helen Ingersoll.