SASSAFRAS (Sassafras albidum/officinalis – Lauraceae)

The sassafras is a well-known North American tree which can grow to 18 m (60 ft) in height. Yellowish flowers are followed by oval bluish fruit. The leaves, which are deciduous, can be plain, double lobed like maple, or lobed on one side only, like a mitten. The tree is related to the bay and camphor.

In America the sassafras is called the ‘laurel of the Iroquois’, after Indians of the eastern United States who held the tree sacred and esteemed it for its therapeutic values. French colonists and explorers in the mid• sixteenth century wrote of how the Indians would make an infusion of the tree bark and give it to those suffering from fever and many other diseases. It was the Spaniards, however, who took the new remedy back to Europe. Cuttings were brought to England in 1610, and trees were cultivated in glasshouses.

In the late seventeenth century, Nicolas Lemery listed the properties of sassafras as being an aperitif and sudorific, as fortifying the sight and the brain. He, and others, considered it good for gout, sciatica and catarrhal discharge.

At one time, the United States was the only country to produce sassafras essential oil where it was used to flavour drinks such as root beer. Medicinal teas – one was known as ‘saloop’ – were made from the bark, leaves and buds. Soap was also made from the leaves. But because of the high wastage involved (the roots are the most oil-rich part of the tree) trees are not now felled for oil production in the United States. Also, since 1958, the use of sassafras oil has been forbidden in the North American food industry; the oil’s main constituent, safrol, has been found to be carcinogenic.

Brazil has continued producing a sassafras essential oil, but from a tree called Ocotea pretiosa which, although a member of the Lauraceae family, is a quite different tree. It is even more rich in safrol than the American oil, and the industry has suffered considerably following the American ban. The production in Brazil is approximately 1500 – 2000 metric tonnes per year (1987 figures), and the principal importer is Japan, followed by the USA, Spain, Italy, France and Britain.

Sassafras was an early flavouring of chewing gum and young leaves are dried and ground to make file powder, an important ingredient in Creole cookery. The essential oil is still used in the perfumery and soap industry. A substance called heliotropine, derived from safrol, was once used in food to reinforce the flavour and aroma of vanilla in cola, custard and biscuits, for example.


Description: The inner part of the roots has a strong balsamic smell, and it is these, plus the wood, bark and rootlets that are used for the production of the essential oil. Leaves and flowers can be added which results in a more lemony, subtler oil. The oil is yellow or reddish-yellow with a special safrol smell, acrid and aromatic, reminiscent of anise, lemon and fennel.

The principal constituents: Approximately 80 per cent safrol and pinene, 8 -10 per cent cadinene, camphene, eugenol, oleo resins, phellandrene, tannic acid and wax. The Brazilian sassafras oil contains some 90 per cent safrol.

Dangers: As the quality of the oil can vary so much, you must buy very carefully if at all. As there are so marry other oils which can benefit rheumatic pains and gout, I think that sassafras is dispensable, particularly in view of its carcinogenic reputation. In addition, because the entire tree needs to be destroyed, the greenhouse effect is continuously being worsened and so sassafras should be eliminated entirely from use in therapy and industry. Because of the suspected carcinogenicity, its use is severely restricted (to 0.05 percent in products) by EC cosmetics laws and IFRA.

A to Z of Plants