Lauraceae (Laurel Family); Subfamily Lauroideae,
Cinnamomeae Tribe, Cinnamominae Subtribe
Forms and Subspecies
The species is divided into two varieties whose
appearance is very similar but whose geographical
distribution is somewhat distinct:
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. albidum
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. moUe (Raf.)
Laurus sassafras 1.
Persea sassafras Spreng.
Sassafras officinale Th. Nees et Eberm.
Sassafras officinalis Nees et Eberm.
Sassafras sassafras (1.) Karst.
Sassafras variifolium (Salisbury) O. Kuntze
Sassafras variifolium (Salisbury) O. Kuntze var.
albidum (Nutt.) Fern.
Ague tree, cinnamon wood, fenchelholz, fenchelholzbaum,
laurus sassafras, nelkenzimtbaum, pavane, saloop, sassafrasbaum, sassafras tree, sassafrax,
sassafrax tree, saxifrax, sommerlorbeer
North American Indians were already drinking a
tea of sassafras root cortex in pre-Columbian
times for stimulant, tonic, and medicinal
purposes. In 1582, sassafras wood was included in
lists of German medicines under the names lignum
pauamum, lignum floridum, and sassafrasbaum
The name sassafras is apparently a corruption
of the Spanish word for the genus Saxifraga, which
the Spanish botanist Monardes coined in the
sixteenth century. Even into the twentieth century,
a sassafras tea with milk and sugar known as
saloop was sold on many London street corners in
the early mornings (Grieve 1982, 715*).
During the American Civil War, the root cortex
was used as a substitute for Chinese tea (Camellia
sinensis) (Havard 1896, 45*). Until recently, it was
also used in the United States as a flavoring agent
in root beer, a nonalcoholic soft drink (Bremness
1995, 83*). In the southern states, dried, young
leaves are used as a spice in gumbo, a Creole dish.
Entire forests of the tree are occasionally found
along the Atlantic Coast from northern Florida to
Canada. The variety albidum occurs from Maine
west to Michigan and Illinois and south to
Virginia and Arkansas. The variety molle is found
from Maine to New York; in Illinois, Iowa, and
Kansas; and as far south as Florida and Texas
(Zander 1994, 500*).
The tree can be propagated from ripe seeds that
have not yet dried, from cuttings, or from root
scions. The tree thrives in almost all types of soil
but does best in good topsoil. It requires a
temperate climate (Grubber 1991, 58 f. *).
The plant is cultivated for pharmaceutical
purposes primarily in the states of New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and reportedly
in northern Mexico and Taiwan as well (Bertram
and Abel 1994, 611).
This deciduous tree, which can grow as tall as 30
meters, bears foliage that is green in summer and
golden red in autumn. The thick bark is deeply
furrowed and has a different structure in each of
the two varieties. The clusters of small yellow
flowers appear before the new leaves. The small
blue fruits (pea-sized drupes) are attached to red
The sassafras tree is particularly recognizable
by the shape of its leaves. The tree develops three
different forms of leaves, each of which appears on
a separate branch. The smallest form is oval, while
the somewhat larger form is oval with an
indentation (two-lobed). The largest and most
frequent (three-lobed) form is deeply digital with
two indentations. The tree also can be identified
by the typical scent of safrole, which is exuded
when the leaves are rubbed or crushed.
The sassafras tree can be confused with the
other two members of the genus, Sassafras tzumu
(Hemsl.) Hemsl. and Sassafras randaiensis (Hay.)
Rehd. (Bertram and Abel 1994, 610).
- Root pith (sassafras lignum, lignum sassafras,
sassafras wood, lignum pavanum, fenchelholz)
- Essential oil, obtained from the root pith
through steam distillation (sassafras oil, sassafras
aetheroleum, oleum sassafras, sassafrasol,
fenchelholzol, essence de sassafras)
- Root cortex (= root bark; sassafras radix, sassafras
The very aromatic root cortex can be obtained
from the living tree without killing it. Ahole is dug
to reveal a piece of the root (no more than one
third). The root cortex is then carefully removed.
Other Species of Sassafras
Other trees are also known as sassafras in
North America: Magnolia virginiana is known
as swamp sassafras, Massoja aromatica is called
Sassafras goesianum, and Umbellularia
californica is known as California sassafras
The tree Mespilodaphne sassafras Meister is
called Brazilian sassafras and is also used as a
counterfeit for true sassafras wood (Be!tram
and Abel 1994, 615).
The essential oil obtained from Ocotea
cymbarum H.B.K. (Lauraceae) is permitted to
be sold under the name sassafras oil or
Brazilian sassafras oil (Bertram and Abel 1994,
In Australia, the name sassafras is applied to
trees from the Family Monimiaceae that "smell
of sassafras" and also contain safrole:
Atherosperma moschatum Labill (southern
sassafras, black sassafras) and Doryphora
sassafras Endl. (real sassafras, yellow sassafras,
canary sassafras). Both trees are used to
produce a "bush tea" with stimulant and tonic
properties. In addition to the essential oil, the
bark of Doryphora also contains the alkaloid
dryphorine (Cribb 1984,172,174*).
Care must be taken not to damage the inner cortex
so the tree is able to regrow the root cortex that hasbeen removed (Grubber 1991,59*).
|Preparation and Dosage
Sassafras formerly was used as an additive to beer
and to perfume tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum)
To prepare as a tea (called sassafras tea or
saloop), add 30 g of chopped root cortex to 0.5
liter of boiling water. A normal dosage for a blood
depurative tea is regarded as 2.5 g of chopped root
(sassafras wood). Pour boiling water over this
amount and strain after ten minutes (Wichtl
1989). As a single dose,S g of sassafras wood can
be ingested (Bertram and Abel 1994, 617).
One or two drops of sassafras oil, dissolved in
alcohol, can be taken several times daily as a
medicinal dosage. The EB6 lists 0.1 g as a single
dosage (Bertram and Abel 1994, 612). A good
starting dosage for aphrodisiac and psychoactive
purposes is regarded as 100 to 200 mg of the oil
(Gottlieb 1973, 45*). This dosage should be
increased only with great care, as overdoses can
result in kidney irritation (Pahlow 1993, 418*).
One teaspoon of sassafras oil can induce
"vomiting, dilated pupils, stupor and collapse"
(Grieve 1982, 716*). The safrole present in the oil
is regarded as carcinogenic (Bertram and Abel 1994, 612 f.). In former times, sassafras oil was
often mixed with opium (cf. Papaver somniferum)
when the latter was administered to children in
order to cover up its horribly bitter taste. For
medicinal use, sassafras oil was usually mixed with
Guaiacum spp. and sarsaparilla (Smilax regellii Kill.
et C.Y. Morton) (Grieve 1982, 716*).
In Louisiana, file (dried, powdered young
sassafras leaves) are used to bind soups and to
prepare gumbo (Bremness 1995,83*).Ritual Use
To date, no ritual use of sassafras, especially for
psychoactive purposes, has been documented. The
use of sassafras oil as an inebriant did not become
well known until MDMA was made illegal (cf.
Gumbo (Atlantic Records, 1972), an album from
Dr. John, the Night Tripper (the "high priest of
voodoo rock"), is named after the Creole dish
gumbo, which is prepared with sassafras leaves.
Whether the ingestion of copious amounts of
sassafras leaves contributed to the hallucinations
immortalized on the album is unknown.
In Europe, sassafras is regarded as a panacea
(Schneider 1974, 3:230*). Sassafras oil was
administered internally in folk medicine to treat
physical and mental debility, gout, menstrual
complaints, urine retention, and inflammations of
the urethra and bladder. It was applied externally
to soothe the pains of rheumatism and insect
stings (Bertram and Abel 1994,612). The oil was
used internally to alleviate the cramps and pains
associated with menstruation (Grieve 1982, 716*).
It also was used to induce abortions, and it should
be avoided when pregnancy is desired (Bertram
and Abel 1994, 612).
In central Europe, teas made from the leaves or
the root cortex were especially popular as a blood
depurative (Bremness 1995, 83*; Wichtl 1989,
The mother tincture (Sassafras hom. HAB34,
Sassafras officinale hom. HPUS88) , obtained by
extracting the dried root cortex in 90% ethyl
alcohol, is used in homeopathic medicine
(Bertram and Abel 1994, 617).
The root cortex typically contains between 6 and
9% essential oil whose primary constituent is
safrole (approximately 800/0). Also present are
safrole camphor (= camphor/D-camphor; cf.
Cinnamomum camphora), tannins (sassafrid), red
tannic acid (an orange dye), resin, wax, mucilage,
sugar, and sitosterol (Bertram and Abel 1994, 611;
Grieve 1982, 715*). A recent study has provided further knowledge of the composItlon of the
essential oil; it is 85% safrole, 3.250/0 camphor, and
1.1% methyleugenol. Each of the other
components-including estragol, eugenol, elemicine,
myristicin (cf. Myristica fragrans) , 5-methoxyeugenol,
and apiol-make up less than 1% of
the mixture (Kamden and Gage 1995). According
to a different analysis, the essential oil obtained
through steam distillation of the root cortex consisted
of 90% safrole, with the remaining 10%
composed of 30% 5-methoxyeugenol, 18% asarone,
5% camphor, 7% coniferaldehyde, 11% piperonylacrolein,
and traces of apiol, 1-menthone, ex.phellandrene,
~-phellandrene, thujone, anethol,
caryophyllene, copaene, elemicine, eugenol,
myristicin, ex.-pinene, and syringaaldehyde (Sethi
et al. 1976).
The root cortex also contains alkaloids (aporphine
and benzylisoquinoline derivatives, boldine,
isoboldine, norboldine, cinnamolaurin, norcinnamolaurin,
reticuline) (Bertram and Abel 1994,
614; Chowdhury et al. 1976; Wichtl1989, 425).
The root pith consists of some 1 to 20/0
essential oil (of which approximately 800/0 is
safrole). The seeds are 600/0 fatty oil with linoleic
and oleic acids (Bertram and Abel 1994, 611, 616).
There are few reports of psychoactive effects
resulting from use of the tea: "Large dosages have
stimulating and sudoriferous effects" (Schuldes
1995, 69*). Ingestion of high dosages of sassafras
oil results in profound stimulation, erotic
excitation, perceptual changes, and particularly a
more profound sensitivity in the emotional
domain. The effects are sometimes described as
MDMA-like and empathogenic (cf. Myristica
fragrans). Higher dosages also can result in
unpleasant side effects (cold sweats, cramping of
the chewing muscles, nervousness, unease).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Sassafras oil has been illegal in the United States
since 1960, when it was claimed that it was
carcinogenic (Kamden and Gage 1995). Because
sassafras oil is a suitable precursor for the illegal
manufacture of MDMA, it is now a controlled
substance worldwide and is almost never sold,
even in small amounts. Even the raw plant
material (root wood, root cortex) has practically
disappeared from the market. In the United States,
and especially in the southern states, the only
product still available is powdered sassafras leaves,
which are sold as gumbo file.
See also the entry for essential oil.
Bertram, Barbara, and Gudrun Abel. 1994. Sassafras.
In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis,
5th ed., 6:610-19. Berlin: Springer.
Chowdhury, Bejoy K., Manohar L. Sethi, H. A. Lloyd,
and Govind J. Kapadia. 1976. Aporphine and
tetrahydrobenzylisoquinoline alkaloids in
Sassafras albidum. Phytochemistry 15: 1803-4.
Kamden, Donatien Pascal, and Douglas A. Gage.
1995. Chemical composition of essential oil from
the root bark of Sassafras albidum. Planta Medica
Sethi, Manohar L., G. Subbu Rao, B. K. Chowdhury,
J. F. Morton, and Govind J. Kapadia. 1976.
Identification of volatile constituents of Sassafras
albidum root oil. Phytochemistry 15:1773-75.
Wichtl, Max. 1989. Sassafrasholz. In Teedrogen, ed.Max Wichtl, 424-25. Stuttgart: WVG.