Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a small-to-medium tree found from east Texas to Maine. Called by some the “only native spice of America,” the leaves are dried and ground to make a seasoning, first by the Choctaw and later in Louisiana Creole cuisine — where it is known as filé powder.
Various parts of the plant were long used for medicinal purposes by natives, settlers, and even in recent times. In the 17th century, it was second only to tobacco as the top export from the Americas, and was used in Europe for scenting perfumes and soaps, and as a cure-all (which, as such things go, severely thinned the species on the landscape). Sassafras tea, tonics and root beer are still imbibed. These days there are many claims of health benefits as well as potential risks, and properties vary by season and part of the plant, so do your research before collecting and consuming (It is my understanding that sassafras oil contains carcinogens and its use is restricted by the FDA).
Humans aren’t the only ones to consume sassafras. Various wildlife browse sassafras in limited quantities, but many birds consume the drupes.
These trees rarely get above about 60 feet tall. However, there is a specimen in Kentucky that measures over 100 feet, with a circumference of 21 feet.
The foliage is particularly interesting. Each tree, and indeed each branch, will likely have three distinct leaf shapes: single lobed, mitten-shaped double lobed, and triple-lobed. More striking to me is the bark. I was shooting the bull with a forester who had an old grey-brown stick in the truck bed. As we talked I idly picked it up and shaved on it with my pocketknife. Underneath the nondescript weathered bark was an intense red color, patterned in layers and furrows. Other specimens range from reddish-brown to orange, and can be somewhat spongy. I’ve made some well-loved walking sticks from sassafras.
(As a complete aside, I don’t see very many staff-ready sassafras in my wanderings of the local woods. Most are little more than sprigs before fire, woods clearing or other disturbance kills them. When I do find them, I generally only cut one if there are already a number of stems in the vicinity. It’s a way of protecting a species that I’d like to see more of. )
The tree has an exotic fragrance. I’m not good at describing smells, but I’ve heard it compared to fennel, anise or licorice. A friend told me that he was digging into a dirt bank one hot afternoon, and he was flagging badly. His mattock sliced into a sassafras root, and the scent – and the associations it sparked in his memory – revived him.