Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
My early knowledge of sassafras brings to mind the legendary blind men describing an elephant. One man touches the tail, another the flank, another the tusk, and in the end, there’s no agreement as to what this “thing” actually is. As a child, one of my jobs was clipping the little sassafrasses that sprouted prolifically from the roots of a parent tree. My own parents were at war with these lawn-threatening elephant tails, and my sisters and I were deployed to the front line. I doubt we were efficient at this work because we loved sassafras: its bright-green stems and spicy smell. Among the egg-shaped leaves, we could find ones shaped like mittens – both left- and right-handed – and the two-thumbed mittens that are common on small sassafras trees. We did clip away somewhat as ordered.
My next encounter was with the flank. The national champion sassafras grows within sight of my Aunt Ginny’s house in Owensboro, Kentucky, and it bears no resemblance to what I knew as sassafras. Its gnarled trunk was about 8 feet in diameter and 80 feet high; it looked more like a baobob. The bronze plaque at its base says this sassafras was first noted for its large size in 1883 and is believed to now be well over 300 years old.
Finally, I got to know the “normal” sassafras, although because the size of the tree varies greatly with soils and climate, normal varies as well. In both the northern and southern parts of its range – southern New England and Florida – sassafras is, at best, a small tree. It attains its true potential in between, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains, where 80-foot trees are not uncommon. The species will grow on almost every soil type, but sandy soils invariably yield small trees.
Many of its features make it well suited for landscaping. The four- to six-inch-long summer leaves are yellow-green above and chalky green below, with smooth margins and long petioles. In winter, sassafras has colorful green twigs and mahogany brown bark as well as an appealing, flat-topped silhouette that is edged in upturned twigs. Its rich, autumn colors are said to be unrivalled; its leaves range from red to pinkish orange, a rich yellow, and blends of scarlet and purple.
Once established, sassafras is relatively free of problems, unless you object to a proliferating family of sassafras root sprouts. The incestuous intertwinings of the offspring make it very difficult to transplant sassafras.
At times, foresters consider sassafras to be a weed. The dense thickets sometimes prevent pine or more desirable hardwoods from regenerating. Plus, both herbaceous and woody plants are suppressed by chemicals that emanate from sassafras roots.
The small, yellow flowers are inconspicuous, but not the fruits. In September, each seed is enclosed in a deep-blue, oval fruit that sits like a strange golf ball on a bright red tee. The fruits are high in fat but are not usually abundant. They are eaten by bobwhites, turkeys, pileated woodpeckers, phoebes, great crested flycatchers, eastern kingbirds, red-eyed vireos, and gray catbirds. Cottontails eat the twigs and bark; deer eat the leaves and twigs.
Today, by any measure, sassafras is but a minor player in the forest, but there was a time when its value was incredibly high. In 1574, a book written by a Nicholas Monardes, Spanish physician, was translated into English. Joyfull News out of the Newe Founde Worlde told of the myriad medicinal uses of New World plants, and of these none was more astonishing than sassafras. The fact that it was used by Native Americans was sure to get the attention of Europeans who at the time were gullible about “Indian medicine.” And Monardes raved about its ability to cure nearly every disorder that humans are heir to, including its use as a remedy for “them that bee lame and creepelles and them that are not able to goe.”
At least as early as 1584, English explorers were directed to fill their returning ships with sassafras roots, and by 1603 a company formed to exploit this newly discovered panacea sent two ships to Virginia. For decades, the Jamestown colony was required to ship a quota of sassafras to England as a condition of its charter.
At some point, it became clear that the curative powers of sassafras had been overstated. The pleasant smell and interesting taste continue to appeal to people to this day, but in 1960 its slow fall from grace took a nosedive when its use in foods was banned by the FDA after it was shown to be mildly carcinogenic and toxic.