Sassafras is a very common tree in our area, but is seldom used for much these days. In colonial times however, it was once in more demand as an export to England than was tobacco. Sassafras once had the reputation of containing a wonder drug, able to cure almost any ailment. It was even rumored to retard old age.
In the early 1600s Sassafras was the first money crop and object-in-trade of the first American cartel. There were trade ships used primarily as “sassafras carriers” to England, where it was the favorite drink of the time. An incident occurred around 1580 that spurred public interest in Sassafras. Near Roanoke, a group of traveling Virginians ran out of food and was forced to eat their dogs, cooked in a soup of sassafras. When the dogs were all consumed, the travelers lived on Sassafras soup alone, which was reported to give them a strange new vitality.
The smell and taste of Sassafras is spicy, and legend had it that the odor alone would keep away sickness as well as pests. Spoons were often made of sassafras wood, as well as noggins (drinking cups), to add extra flavor to food and drink. Cradles and Bible boxes were made of the wood to keep out evil spirits. It was said that a ship with sufficient sassafras wood in her hull would never be wrecked.
In our area the root of sassafras is still used to make tea or a root beer tasting drink. The root bark can be distilled to make sassafras oil, which is used as a flavoring agent. My Cajun cousins from Louisiana use a food seasoning called file’ (pronounced fee-lay), which is dried Sassafras leaves ground to a powder. The leaves have also been used as a dye to make a soft yellow tan color.
Sassafras is a small tree that seldom grows over 40 feet tall. It can be identified by its green twigs, and leaves that have three different shapes: 3-lobed (trident shape), 2-lobed (mitten shaped), and un-lobed oval shaped.
All parts of the tree have a spicy aroma. Fragrant, yellow-green flowers occur March to April. In September, dark blue one-seeded berries form on a thick red stalk. Sassafras is easy to find in fence rows, open woods, and abandoned fields.