By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
The upcoming hot holiday weekend bodes many outdoor events here in north Florida’s premier area for leisure activities. Of course with heat and activity comes thirst and the need for a quenching drink.
It is truly amazing what has long been accomplished with some carbonated water, sweetener, and flavoring. The sassafras tree was the source of one such flavoring in Wakulla County several generations ago.
Sassafras albidum is a deciduous native with a long history of multiple uses. 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 sassafras tree has the potential to reach 60 feet, but most are much shorter. Trunk diameter maximum is 12 inches.
Sassafras wood has served in a number of ways over the centuries. While 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.
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 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 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 soft drink wars.
Today sassafras trees have returned to the wild in Wakulla County. Some consider this native a nuisance weed to be removed, while a few others are cultivated as landscape specimens.
Either way, it is still a good tree to rest under and enjoy a cool drink.
To learn more about sassafras trees in Wakulla County contact the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/.