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Ingram, T- Sassafras albidium

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Sassafras albidum





Common name: Sassafras tree

Species: albidum

Family: Laurel

Genus: Sassafras

General Information & Medicinal/Folk Uses


Sassafras albidum is the North American species of a tree which can be found commonly over most of the eastern half of North America . It is easily identifiable because of its unique leaf shapes, a typical Sassafras tree will have three leaf designs, as shown in Figure II. The leaf shapes are referred to as “oval, mitten lobed, or three lobed” (Foster & Duke, 2000). Older trees have predominantly oval leaves, as compared with younger Sassafras trees which have wide variation of the three leaf designs. The branches can be used as tinder and kindling for starting a fire in the rain, the reason for this is because of the oils that are present in the shrub woody parts. Anyone who has ever smelled a Sassafras can tell you that everey part of the sassafras tree it has a fruit loops, root beer, and overall plesent aroma to it.


The roots of Sassafras albidum can be made into sassafras tea and are also the main component of the precursor to modern root beer “Sarsaparilla”. It must be noted that although the oil found in sassafras, also known as Safrole, is banned in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration because of its carcinogenic properties, however a can of old fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as can of beer (Foster & Duke, 2000). One of the reasons for the reasoning behind the geographic location of the Plymouth Colonies was because of the large amounts of Sassafras trees growing in that area, this presented great potential for exportation of the tree and its parts,  the derivitives of sassafras were a moderatly important part of clonial America.


Sassafras albidum also has some interesting folk usages, a tea made from the roots and the bark is a well known “spring blood tonic” and is used for everything from kidney problems, to high blood pressure (Foster & Duke, 2000). The twig pith from sassafras can be used in a poultice for eye ailments, and is also ingested in tea form for various digestion, liver, and kidney ailments (Foster & Duke, 2000).  It must also be noted that Safrole shares a chemical similarity to MDMA (ecstasy), and can be synthesized into MDMA fairly easily. “Currently, MDMA is on the U.S. Schedule I of controlled substances, and is illegal to manufacture, possess, or sell in the United States” (www.erowid.org). The leaves of the tree however are very edible, and are a moderatly good source of nutrition if you were to become lost in the wilderness, especially since they are not easily confused with the leaves of poisonous plants.


Figure I


Figure I:


This picture shows a fully grown Sassafras albidum (left), a sapling Sassafras albidum (top right), the fruits (bottom right), and the flowers (top middle).




Figure II



Figure II:


From left to right; oval, mitten lobed, and three lobed. The shape of the leaves helps to distinguish it from various other trees/shrubs.




            As shown by Figure III, Sassafras albidum is found as far north as Canada and as far south as Texas and Florida. Sassafras albidum is most commonly found in the eastern parts of North America, this might suggest that it prefers a more moderate climate, and is likely to be found growing in rich soils, and woody areas. As a perennial it is a common tree, not endangered in any way. Sassafras albidum flowers from April to May; the flowers are small yellow clusters that appear before the leaves. Sassafras uses wind pollination like most trees its size, which is what you would expect from such dull flowers with no scent. Most trees native to North America do not rely on animal pollination, this is because the honey bee was introduced after colonization. Sassafras trees can grow up to 100 feet tall, with good sunlight a normal Sassafras albidum can grow over a meter in one year, and over four meters in four years (www.floridata.com). The fruits/berries that it produces are small, blackish purple when ripe, contain only one seed, fall off in fall and are mostly distributed by birds and other animals (www.floridata.com).


            One of the more interesting aspects of Sassafras albidum is the fact that older trees produce more oval leaves than mitten or three lobed leaves. It has been suggested that the reason for Sassafras having so many differently shaped leaves had to do with the fact that it gives it an evolutionary edge, because it can produce different shaped leaves with different boundary layers and thus increase efficiency in photosynthetic reactions. Lobed leaves are much more photosyntheticly efficient, as opposed to unlobed (oval) which are easier to make but less efficient photosyntheticly (De Soyza, 1991).  Sassafras albidum is also one of the main host plants for Spicebush Swallowtails larvae.

        Sassafrass albidum can be found in the following habitat types

1. Temperate broad leaf and mixed forests

         2. Temperate coniferous forests

         3. Boreal Forests / Taiga

        There are no known ecological phenomenon’s that are contributing to Sassafras albidum's decline, the only reason for it to disappear from an area is due to deforestation or other human intervention. Sassafras albidum is very prominent in woody areas, and as such is prone to be cut down in clear cut operations, and Sassafras albidum is not one of the plants which usually grows back after clear cutting. However if such a ecological phenomenon were to take place, many other forms of life would suffer, such as the Spicebush Swallowtail, this beautiful butterfly uses the Sassafras tree as a host to it's larvae, and one must assume that any change in the Sassafras tree's population would have a significant impact on this pollinator, and thus have an impact of the ecology of the biodiversity of the area in general. Sassafras albidum does not grow very well in the western parts of the United States, as well as not growing well in other hotter and less humid climates, it must be assumed that any change in the overall temperature of the world could have a negative impact on the population of Sassafras albidum.  One such way to prevent such a significant climate change is by reducing carbon emissions, this may lead to a stabilizing of the Earth's temperature.


                                                                                                                         Figure III






Figure III



This map of North America shows the distribution of Sassafras albidum trees, it is native to North America.

















Foster S., Duke J.A., (2000), A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, Second Edition, Peterson Field Guides, p. 314



De Soyza A.G., Kincaid, D.T., (1991) Patterns in Leaf Morphology and Photosynthesis in Shoots of Sassafras albidum (Lauraceae), American Journal of Botany, Vol. 78, p. 89-98









Figure I: http://www.tva.gov/river/landandshore/stabilization/plants/images/sassafras_albidum.jpg



Figure II: http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/pictures/sass_08.jpg



Figure III: http://plants.usda.gov/maps/large/SA/SAAL5.png




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