sassafras tree

Sassafras: Rich History, Traditions, and Uses

The sassafras (Sassafras albidum) isn’t just another tree on my homestead. Its fragrant branches reaching towards the sky whisper stories of my ancestors. Each vibrant leaf, each twist of its bark, embodies the traditions and remedies passed down through generations. This connection to nature, symbolized by the sassafras’s aromatic essence and fiery fall foliage, burns brightly within my heart.

As a woman of indigenous (Nipmuck) heritage, studying sassafras feels like reclaiming lost chapters of my family’s narrative. Every leaf unfolds a hidden tale, every root burrows into the rich soil of history. Sassafras (Sasaunckpamuck) played a vital role in our past, from adding zest to meals to offering solace in times of illness, a testament to the wisdom passed down through generations.

My exploration of this native tree is more than an academic pursuit; it’s a deeply personal mission to honor and revive the knowledge of my ancestors. Whether it’s the culinary magic of its leaves or the healing secrets nestled within its bark, sassafras remains a wellspring of inspiration and well-being. By delving into its multifaceted benefits and sharing them with others, I strive to keep this precious link alive, ensuring the legacy of the sassafras, like the tree itself, endures for generations to come.

Etymology and Historical Significance

The name “sassafras” was likely derived from the Spanish adaptation of Native American terms, reflecting the deep cultural roots and indigenous knowledge of the plant. For instance, the Nipmuck peoples, among others, referred to it as “Sasaunckpamuck.” This underscores the significance of sassafras in native cultures long before European settlers became aware of its uses.

When Europeans, including the Spanish, first encountered this native tree in the 16th century, they were captivated not only by its aromatic qualities but also by its reputed medicinal properties. Early records, such as those by Thomas Hariot, reveal its immediate popularity and its importance as an export back to Europe. Sassafras quickly became a familiar sight in European apothecaries, valued both for its health benefits and its exotic appeal.

young sassafras tree

Identification and Growth of Sassafras Trees

Sassafras trees are a delightful presence here on my homestead, especially at the forest edges where they bask in ample sunlight. These trees are quite adaptable but thrive best in moist, well-drained soil with a touch of acidity. They flourish in both full sun and light shade, often spotted in open woods or along roadsides.

The growth of these trees is fascinating; they shoot up quickly when young but pace themselves as they mature. They can tower between 30 to 60 feet with a wide-spreading canopy that provides a generous drape of shade.

Their bark is as distinctive as their stature, is reddish-brown, furrowed, and aromatic. Young sassafras twigs are olive green, and when scratched, they emit a lemony, slightly medicinal odor. As the trees get older, the bark develops interlacing ridges and reddish highlights. The bark beneath a broken piece of mature sassafras is reddish-orange. Crushing the bark releases a slightly aromatic scent, making it instantly recognizable and a favorite among those familiar with its charms.

Beyond their beauty, these trees play a vital role in the ecosystem. Their flowers attract a variety of insects for pollination, while the fruits are a treat for birds and small mammals, aiding in seed dispersal. The variety in leaf structure not only adds to the visual appeal but also provides diverse textures for habitat and nesting.

By understanding the growth patterns and unique characteristics of sassafras, those of us who cherish the natural world can better appreciate and protect this enchanting species, ensuring it continues to thrive in its native settings.

spicebush swallowtail butterfly

Environmental and Conservation Efforts

While sassafras trees aren’t currently endangered, their preservation is crucial due to their vital ecological roles, including supporting a diverse range of wildlife. Particularly close to my heart is the relationship between sassafras trees and the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. These trees are indispensable as host plants for the butterfly’s larvae, offering both shelter and nourishment essential for their growth and survival.

Urban development and agricultural expansion are significant threats to sassafras habitats. As we encroach on natural spaces, we not only reduce the numbers of these ecologically beneficial trees but also impact the species that rely on them, such as the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. As someone deeply committed to supporting native pollinators, I see protecting these native trees as part of a broader effort to maintain biodiversity and sustain the natural ecosystems that are vital to our planet’s health.

Various environmental groups are actively working to protect sassafras by promoting sustainable practices and protecting its native environments. Efforts include:

  • Habitat Protection: Advocating for the preservation of forest areas that house significant sassafras populations to ensure that these ecosystems remain intact.
  • Sustainable Practices: Encouraging practices that reduce the impact of farming and development on native plant species, including the use of less invasive methods and the implementation of buffer zones around critical habitats.
  • Public Education: Raising awareness about the importance of sassafras and the roles it plays in local ecosystems, particularly its contribution to biodiversity by supporting species like the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.

The ongoing conservation is not just about preserving a tree species, but also about maintaining the balance and health of entire ecosystems. By protecting these trees, we also safeguard the broader natural heritage of the regions where these trees are indigenous.

sassafras tree

Sassafras in Folk Medicine

Sassafras has long been a fixture in traditional folk medicine, valued for its variety of purported health benefits. From indigenous practices to colonial apothecaries, the roots, leaves, and bark of sassafras have been harvested to treat a host of ailments. Modern herbalism continues to explore its potential, blending traditional wisdom with contemporary science to unlock its benefits.

Traditional Remedies and Modern Applications

Historically, sassafras was believed to purify blood, treat skin diseases, and provide relief from rheumatic pains. Native American tribes like mine (Nipmuck) valued it for its medicinal properties, using it as a universal remedy for various health issues. Europeans, upon arriving in North America, quickly incorporated sassafras into their medicinal repertoire, primarily for its reputed ability to cure syphilis and other diseases.

Today, research into sassafras focuses on its active compounds, such as safrole, which has been found to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. However, it’s important to note that safrole is also considered carcinogenic, leading to restrictions on sassafras in commercial food products. Despite this, the use of this plant in folk medicine persists, with emphasis on parts of the plant that contain lower levels of safrole, like the leaves used in filé powder.

Sassafras’s Enduring Role in Herbal Medicine

While modern science has led to some caution in the use of sassafras, particularly concerning the safrole content, its historical applications and ongoing popularity in highlight a deep cultural and healing connection. As with any herbal remedy, it’s important to consult healthcare providers before starting any new treatment. Sassafras remains a potent symbol of natural healing, bridging the gap between ancient traditions and modern herbal practices.

sassafras incense

Uses for Sassafras

As we dive into the contemporary uses of sassafras, it’s fascinating to see how this remarkable tree continues to weave its way into various aspects of modern life, from traditional remedies to sustainable living. Sassafras offers a spectrum of applications that tap into both its historical significance and its potential for enriching our health and homes today. Whether it’s through its medicinal benefits, aromatic properties, or its use in crafts and landscaping, this plant remains a versatile and valuable resource.

1. Herbal Uses

  • Sassafras Tea for Health: Traditionally, a tea made from the root bark has been consumed to help cleanse the blood, soothe arthritis, and promote overall wellness. However, due to safrole’s potential health risks, it’s important to use sassafras sparingly in this manner.
  • Topical Applications: A poultice made from its leaves can be applied to wounds, sores, or rashes to exploit its antiseptic and healing properties.

2. Aromatic Uses

  • Homemade Fragrances: The essential oils of this plant have a distinct, pleasant aroma that can be extracted and used in homemade perfumes or as a natural air freshener.
  • Incense: Its dried leaves and bark can be burned as incense, offering a sweet, clean scent that can also help repel insects.

3. Craft and Decorative Uses

  • Natural Dyes: The bark and leaves can be used to make natural dyes for fabrics. The colors produced range from soft yellows to warm browns, depending on the mordant used.
  • Wood Crafting: The wood of this tree, known for its durability and aromatic properties, is excellent for crafting furniture or decorative items. It’s relatively easy to work with and provides a beautiful finish.

4. Gardening and Landscaping

  • Companion Planting: Sassafras trees can be beneficial in gardens, acting as companion plants that help repel certain pests due to their aromatic properties.
  • Landscaping: With its striking fall foliage and unique leaf shapes, it is an excellent choice for adding visual interest to landscapes.

5. Herbal Preparations

  • Detox Baths: Ground bark and leaves can be added to bathwater for a detoxifying bath that purportedly helps soothe skin ailments and relax muscles.

6. Cultural and Spiritual Uses

  • Ceremonial Purposes: Some Native American tribes have used sassafras in ceremonial contexts, both for its medicinal properties and symbolic significance.

7. Culinary Uses

  • It is most famously used as filé powder in Creole cooking, where its leaves are dried and ground to create this essential spice and thickening agent. 
  • Innovative chefs have also experimented with sassafras in various beverages and culinary creations, from traditional root beer to contemporary dishes, looking to capture its unique essence.
sassafras tree

Safety Considerations 

The use of sassafras in food and medicine underwent significant scrutiny and regulation in the 1960s when safrole, a primary compound found in sassafras oil, was classified as a carcinogen. This discovery led to a reassessment of its safety, particularly in its widespread use in foods and beverages.

The Ban on Sassafras

In 1960, research conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that safrole was hepatocarcinogenic in laboratory animals, leading to the eventual ban of sassafras oil and safrole in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs in 1976. The most famous casualty of this ban was traditional root beer, which originally used sassafras oil as its primary flavoring agent. This regulation profoundly impacted how the plant was perceived and utilized in the market, shifting it from a commonplace ingredient to one that required cautious handling.

Safrole and Carcinogenic Concerns

Safrole, the component that prompted the ban, was found in high concentrations in the oil extracted from sassafras’s roots and bark. Prolonged exposure to safrole was linked to liver cancer and other health issues in rats, which raised valid concerns for human health if consumed in large quantities.

Safe Use in Modern Times

Despite the ban on safrole-containing components, not all parts of the plant contain high levels of this compound. For example, the leaves, which are used to make filé powder, contain significantly lower amounts of safrole and are generally considered safe for consumption. Filé powder continues to be a popular ingredient in culinary applications, especially in traditional dishes like gumbo.

Using Sassafras Safely:

  1. Culinary Use: Utilizing sassafras leaves for filé powder in cooking provides flavor without the risks associated with safrole.
  2. Herbal Use: Small, infrequent doses of sassafras tea made from the roots or bark may be consumed with caution, but regular use is not recommended due to the potential cumulative effects of safrole.
  3. Consultation with Health Professionals: Always consult with a healthcare provider before using sassafras medicinally, especially if it involves the more safrole-rich parts of the plant.

Continuing the Legacy with Caution

While the use of sassafras has been curtailed in some respects due to health concerns, it remains a plant of significant cultural, historical, and culinary importance. Understanding the risks associated with safrole and adhering to guidelines can help maintain sassafras as a safe and enjoyable element of natural remedies and culinary traditions. This balance of respect for both its benefits and potential dangers is crucial for continuing to appreciate sassafras without compromising health.


  1. Sassafras albidum. Wikipedia. Accessed May 17, 2022. Available at: 
  2. Sassafras. Wikipedia. Accessed May 17, 2022. Available at: 
  3. Moerman, Daniel E. Native AmericanMedicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, OR: Timber Press. 2009. 
  4. Neves, Liz. Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness. Portland, OR: Timber Press. 2020. 
  5. Tantaquidgeon, Gladys. A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Belief (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania Historical Commission). 1942. 
  6. Wagner-Reiss, Katherine. Plant Names Tell Their Stories: Spicy Sassafras albidum. Morris Arboretum University of Pennsylvania. Accessed May 17, 2022. Available at:


The Outdoor Apothecary website is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. While we strive to provide accurate and up-to-date information, it is the reader’s responsibility to ensure proper plant identification and usage.

Please be aware that some plants are poisonous or can have serious adverse health effects. We are not health professionals, medical doctors, or nutritionists. It is essential to consult with qualified professionals for verification of nutritional information, health benefits, and any potential risks associated with edible and medicinal plants mentioned on this website.

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