The Sassafras is a deciduous tree (meaning that it sheds it’s leaves for the winter) which is native to North America, It is commonly found growing in hardwood forests, abandoned fields, fence rows, and areas that have been disturbed in some way.
It may grow to 80 feet in height, but normally is 20 to 35 feet. Quite slender, it has a vaguely pyramid shape and it’s branches form tiers when viewed from a distance. Saplings have a very smooth bark with an brown-orange color, once the tree mature the trunk has deep furrows.
One of it’s most distinctive characteristics is the fact that it will often have three different shaped leaves on one tree.
Some leaves are elliptic, and some have one lobe, either right or left, looking like a mitten, and yet another have two lobes. Flowers will precede leaves in spring, they are a yellow green color and quite small.
Among it’s other attributes, Sassafras is surrounded by folklore. Many years ago, the Persians and Flemish believed life began as a double tree, and the Gods separated the trees, gave them souls and turned the branches into arms and legs, and the crowns into heads filled with wisdom.
The other trees wanted to be human also, but couldn’t quite make it, as a result some of them have leaves shaped like human hands showing our link to them.
When the leaves of this tree are crushed, they give off a rootbeer smell, and if the roots of saplings are boiled they make quite a nice tea.
If the leaves are used in tea they need not be boiled, just dried, crushed and pour the boiling water over them.
Native Americans used the bark from this tree as a cure for headaches, as it has, in a lower concentration, the same ingredients as willow bark which is used to make asprin.
They also used the to kill parasites, reduce fevers, treat colds, measles and even diarrhea, and constipation.
Sassafras extract is not commonly sold, as the FDA has deemed that it causes cancer in lab rats, however it is still sold as sold as File powder, which is made from the ground, dried leaves and is use as a thickener, and a condiment in gumbo and other Cajun dishes.
To make you own File, you only need dry young leaves of the sassafras tree and grind them in a coffee grinder or spice mill.
Thank you so much for identifying the Sassafras trees in my yard!
Dried Sassafras trunks have been used for many years as fence poles since they decompose very slowly and the trunks are often very straight. They are also used in furniture for the same reason and their beauty when sliced into planks.