By, Les Harrison
Sassafras albidum is a deciduous native with a long history of multiple uses in panhandle Florida and far beyond. Leaves of this tree have turned up in the fossil record from eons ago.
Sassafras has many unusual and unique features, its leaf variation being one example. Each plant may have leaves of three widely difference shapes.
Some leaves can be oval, other with one lobe, and still others with three lobes. This variation may occur from branch to branch or several shapes on a single branch.
The tree has the potential to reach 60 feet, but most trees are much shorter. Trunk diameter maximum is 12 inches.
Sassafras wood has served in a number of ways over the centuries. Although while the wood is relatively weak and brittle, it has been used for fence rails and post and ox yokes. Its durability and light weight make it ideal for boat building.
Sassafras lumber and roots were the motivation in 1603 expedition from Bristol, England in which two ships returned to their home port with their hulls partially laden with the desired commodity. During the early 17th century sassafras along with tobacco were major America exports to the British Empire.
Despite the uses for sassafras lumber, the roots proved to have the most impact commercially. Numerous tribes had used the sassafras root for the basis of medicinal treatments long before being discovered by European explorers.
Sassafras in A Bottle
First exported to Great Britain by Sir Francis Drake in 1602, demand for sassafras root grew quickly. It was marketed as a treatment for scurvy, skin sores, kidney problems, toothaches, rheumatism, swelling, bronchitis, hypertension, dysentery, fever and other disorders of the day.
Home brewers of the day on both sides of the Atlantic began experimenting with the root as an addition to their favorite libation. There were alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions of this increasingly popular beverage.
Pharmacist Charles Hires introduced a commercial version of sassafras-base-root-beer at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. The success was quickly evident and distribution was nationwide within a few decades.
Locating, harvesting and processing sassafras roots became a small industry. Prohibition served only to accelerate the demand for dark brown flavoring agent.
Sassafras oil, the key flavoring ingredient in sassafras-base-root-beer, was determined to have carcinogenic properties in 1960. Its use was promptly banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The flavor was so popular with consumers. Everywhere that companies developed artificial flavors to replace the forbidden ingredient. Demand for natural sassafras evaporated and the tree became a footnote in the cola wars.
Today sassafras trees have returned to the wild in north Florida. Some people consider this native tree a nuisance, weed to be removed. While there are a few others are cultivated as landscape specimens.
Unfortunately, this is one of the tree species which is favored by the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle, the disease vector for Laural Wilt. Once again the pressure for survival is on this resilient and remarkable plant.
To learn more about Florida’s sassafras trees, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.