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.

Folk Names

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

(Schneider 1974,3:230*).

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).

Psychoactive Material

- 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

cortex, fenchelholzrinde)

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

(Grieve 1982,716*).

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 has

been removed (Grubber 1991,59*).
Preparation and Dosage

Sassafras formerly was used as an additive to beer

and to perfume tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum)

(Schneider 1974,3:231*).

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.

herbal ecstasy).


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.

Medicinal Use

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.

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