A spicy tree for Thanksgiving – Sassafras albidum

Celebration of the Thanksgiving Day and autumn’ brilliant colours with a portrait of a native, aromatic tree.

Sassafras albidum

Sassafras albidum

Sassafras albidum – sassafras (Fam.Lauraceae) it is a medium size tree, 15-20 m tall, with an interesting branching (candelabra-like) that can be found in the wild in southern Ontario (Canada) and widespread in the States. What I think is really cool is that it has leaves that come in three shapes! On top of this, in the fall they turn yellow, going also into red and purple depending on the year.

Sassafras albidum leaves
Sassafras albidum leaves

It flowers early in the spring and by fall the ornamental black drupes are displayed on red pedicels with the same candelabra-like ramification (aka. sympodial). All parts of the plant are spicy and aromatic.

Sassafras albidum fruits
Sassafras albidum fruits

It requires full sun locations, with no particular preference for soils and it is medium to fast growing. In the wild has the tendency to sprout forming colonies; if desired as a single trunk tree the root shoots (‘suckers’) can be removed, although it also looks nice as a multi-stemmed small tree.

Before the discovery of the North American continent sassafras was extensively used by Native Americans: anthelmintic, antidiarrheal, antirrheumatic, cold remedy, venereal, tonic and so on…. The saying goes that the European explorers, after seeing its medicinal use by the Natives, brought it back to England around 1600s. Like in many other cases, they thought they found the ‘cure-all’ plant. Although not quite so, the sassafras oil was widely imported and employed in foods, medicinal products, cosmetics (root beer, sassafras tea,  filé powder, as flavouring in candies…). But after the safrol, the essential component of sassafras oil was recognized as a potential carcinogen around 1960’s, the use of sassafras oil was banned in the U.S.A. and later in Canada. Only the leaves which are said to contain little safrol, are still used to make a powder filé which is part of the renown Creole dish gumbo.

Rarely seen in cultivation here, although it can be propagated either by seeds, either by root cuttings. Germination is said to be best when the seeds are sown in the fall. Stratification is recommended for seeds to be sown in the spring (cold-moist for 3 months). I don’t know if the seeds are losing viability like its spicy cousin Lindera benzoin (as well in Fam. Lauraceae), but for just in case most seeds will be kept stratified, some will be stored dry, and a few sown right away as an experiment.

 

 

4 replies
    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      In the States is more common, both in the wild and cultivated; here is rare in the wild in southern Ontario only, so maybe the lack of propagation material?

    • diversifolius
      diversifolius says:

      Yes, tea and root beer which apparently it was delicious – I never got to taste either of them though.
      I will collect a few fresh leaves next year to make a bit of file powder and see how they taste in tea; they contain little safrol so they are OK (Safrol is found in almost all spiced plants but in lower quantities).

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