Sassafras albidum (Sassafras, White Sassafras, Red Sassafras, or Silky Sassafras) is a species of Sassafras native to eastern North America, from southern Maine and southern Ontario west to Iowa, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas. It occurs throughout the eastern deciduous forest habitat type, at altitudes of sea level up to 1,500 m. It formerly also occurred in southern Wisconsin, but is extinct there as a native tree.
The name "Sassafras", applied by the botanist Nicolas Monardes in the sixteenth century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for saxifrage. Before the twentieth century, Sassafras enjoyed a great reputation in the medical literature, but became valued for its power to improve the flavor of other medicines.
It is a medium-sized deciduous tree growing to 15–35 m tall, with a trunk up to 60 cm diameter, and a crown with many slender branches. The bark on trunk of mature trees is thick, dark red-brown, and deeply furrowed. The branching is sympodial. The shoots are bright yellow green at first with mucilaginous bark, turning reddish brown, and in two or three years begin to show shallow fissures. The leaves are alternate, green to yellow-green, ovate or obovate, 10–16 cm long and 5–10 cm broad with a short, slender, slightly grooved petiole. They come in three different shapes, all of which can be on the same branch; three-lobed leaves, unlobed elliptical leaves, and two-lobed leaves; rarely, there can be more than three lobes. In fall, they turn to shades of yellow, tinged with red. The flowers are produced in loose, drooping, few-flowered racemes up to 5 cm long in early spring shortly before the leaves appear; they are yellow to greenish-yellow, with five or six tepals. It is usually dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate trees; male flowers have nine stamens, female flowers with six staminodes (aborted stamens) and a 2–3 mm style on a superior ovary. Pollination is by insects. The fruit is a dark blue-black drupe 1 cm long containing a single seed, borne on a red fleshy club-shaped pedicel 2 cm long; it is ripe in late summer, with the seeds dispersed by birds. The cotyledons thick and fleshy. All parts of the plant are aromatic and spicy. The roots are thick and fleshy, and frequently produce root sprouts which can develop into new trees.
It prefers rich, well-drained sandy loam with a pH of 6–7, but will grow in any loose, moist soil. Seedlings will tolerate shade, but saplings and older trees demand full sunlight for good growth; in forests it typically regenerates in gaps created by windblow. Growth is rapid, particularly with root sprouts, which can reach 1.2 m in the first year and 4.5 m in 4 years. Root sprouts often result in dense thickets, and a single tree, if allowed to spread unrestrained, will soon be surrounded by a sizable clonal colony, as its stoloniferous roots extend in every direction and send up multitudes of shoots.
Sassafras is often grown as an ornamental tree for its unusual leaves and aromatic scent. Outside of its native area, it is occasionally cultivated in Europe and elsewhere.
An essential oil, called sassafras oil, is distilled from the root bark or the fruit. It was used as a fragrance in perfumes and soaps, food (sassafras tea and candy flavoring) and for aromatherapy. The smell of sassafras oil is said to make an excellent repellent for mosquitoes and other insects, which makes it a nice garden plant. Acids can be extracted from bark for manufacturing perfumes.
The essential oil was used as a pain killer as well as an antiseptic in dentistry. The pith is used in the U.S. to soothe eye inflammation and ease catarrh.
Sassafras oil is the preferred source of safrole, which is the main component (75-80%) of the essential oil.
The root or root bark is used to make tea, although commercial "sassafras teas" are now artificially flavored as a result of the FDA ban (see below). A yellow dye is obtained from the wood. The shoots were used to make root beer (formerly an alcoholic beverage, but now a soft drink), which owed its characteristic odor to the sassafras extract, now replaced by other natural and/or artificial flavors. The dried and ground leaves are known as filé powder. Filé is still used for thickening sauces and soups in Cajun, Creole, and other Louisiana cooking, notably in the dish filé gumbo.
Safrole is now recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture as a potential carcinogen. Safrole, and sassafras not certified as safrole-free, have been banned in the United States as food additives or flavoring agents by the FDA since 1976 due to safrole's designation as a carcinogen. Sassafras leaves do not contain sufficient amounts of safrole to be covered by the FDA ban.
Safrole is commonly used by clandestine laboratories to synthesize various hallucinogenic drugs such as MDA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine), MDMA (Ecstasy), and MDEA (Love). For this reason, the sale of safrole and sassafras oil is monitored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In some regions it was a popular additive to moonshine.
The wood is dull orange brown, hard, and durable in contact with the soil; it was used in the past for posts and rails, small boats and ox-yokes, though scarcity and small size limits current use. Some is still used for making furniture. 
Propagation of the tree is most easily achieved trough the separating of root sucklings that are found around almost all mature trees. Simply cut the root below the sapling leaving some 10 cm of the root. Plant the sapling in a pot containing a free draining organic rich soil and leave in a relatively protected spot from wind, heat, and intense sunlight. They are very hardy and it's almost impossible to fail.
Pests and Diseases
- Flora of North America: Sassafras albidum
- U.S. Forest Service: Sassafras albidum (pdf file)
- Hope College, Michigan: Sassafras albidum
- U.S. Forest Service Silvics Manual: Sassafras albidum
- Keeler, H. L. (1900). Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. Charles Scriber's Sons, New York.
- Kamdem D. P., Gage, D. A. (1995). "Chemical Composition of Essential Oil from the Root Bark of Sassafras albidum". Journal of Organic Chemistry 61 (6): 574-575. doi:10.1055/s-2006-959379.
- "US FDA/CFSAN: Listing of Food Additive Status". FDA. July 2006. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/opa-appa.html. Retrieved 2007-04-25.
- Missouriplants: Sassafras albidum