Sassafras – Sassafras albidum

Sassafras – Sassafras albidum [1]
Lauraceae: Laurel Family
Steam distillation of the dried root bark produces an essential oil, consisting mostly of safrole, that once was extensively used as a fragrance in perfumes and soaps, food and for aromatherapy [2].
Sassafras Fall Foliage
The Laurel family is comprised of 2000 – 4000 species in 55 genera of flowering plants in the Order Laurales. Most are aromatic evergreen trees or shrubs, but Sassafras and one or two other genera are deciduous, and Cassytha is a genus of parasitic vines.

Members of this family are generally aromatic shrubs and trees with insignificant flowers and fleshy fruit. Some of the better known members of the family are the avocado, the camphor tree, cinnamon, sassafras, and Lindera (spicebush). However, the "prime" member of this family is the Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), famous as the provider of bay leaves for cooking, also a useful hedging plant, and the source of branches from which laurel wreaths were created, widely used in Greek and Roman times as crowns for victors. The word "laureate," as in Nobel or Poet was derived from this practice.

Trees of the laurel family predominate in the world's laurel forests, which occur in a few humid subtropical and mild temperate regions of the northern and southern hemispheres, including the Macaronesian islands, southern Japan, Madagascar, and central Chile. Many species predominate in equatorial Southeast Asia and Brazil [2].

Sassafras, Morton Arboretum acc. 534-81*1 is 29 years old.
Sassafras is 29 years old.

Sassafras leaves and twigs are consumed by white-tailed deer. Sassafras leaf browsers include groundhogs, marsh rabbits, and American black bears. Sassafras fruits are eaten by many species of birds including Bobwhite Quail, Eastern Kingbirds, Great Crested Flycatchers, Phoebes, Wild Turkeys, Gray Catbirds, Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, and Northern Mockingbirds. Some small mammals also consume sassafras fruits [2].

Steam distillation of dried root bark produces an essential oil, consisting mostly of safrole, that once was extensively used as a fragrance in perfumes and soaps, food and for aromatherapy. The yield of this oil from American sassafras is quite low and great effort is needed to produce useful amounts of the root bark. Commercial "sassafras oil" is usually found in by-product of camphor production in Asia.  Safrole is a precursor for the clandestine manufacture of the drug MDMA (ecstasy), and as such, its transport is monitored internationally.

Safrole, also known as shikimol, is a colorless or slightly yellow oily liquid. It is typically extracted from the root-bark or the fruit of sassafras plants in the form of sassafras oil, or synthesized from other related methylenedioxy compounds. It is the principal component of brown camphor oil, and is found in small amounts in a wide variety of plants, where it functions as a natural pesticide. Ocotea cymbarum oil made from Ocotea pretiosa, a plant growing in Brazil, and sassafras oil made from Sassafras albidum, a tree growing in eastern North America, are the main natural sources for safrole. It is a precursor in the synthesis of the insecticide synergist piperonyl butoxide and the recreational drug MDMA ("Ecstasy").

Sassafras Bark
Sassafras Bark
Sassafras is a charming specimen plant
Sassafras is a charming specimen plant
Culinary uses: The dried and ground leaves are used to make filé powder, also called gumbo filé, a spice made from dried and ground sassafras leaves. It is used in the making of some types of gumbo, a Creole and Cajun soup/stew. It is sprinkled over gumbo as a seasoning and a thickening agent, giving it a distinctive flavor and texture. Sassafras leaves do not contain safrole.

In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil and safrole in commercially mass produced foods and drugs based on the animal studies and human case reports. Several years later sassafras tea was banned, a ban that lasted until the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994. Sassafras root extracts which do not contain safrole are permissible, and are still widely used commercially in flavoring tea and root beer.

Sassafras autumn foliage
Sassafras autumn foliage; Some individuals have three different leaflet shapes on the same plant.


  1. Sassafras – Sassafras albidum, Morton Arboretum acc. 534-81*1 photos: Bruce Marlin
  2. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Lauraceae"
  3. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, "Sassafras"

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