Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees
Sassafras sassafras (L.) Karst. nom. inval.
Laurus albidus Nutt.
Laurus sassafras L.
Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees var. molle (Raf.) Fernald
Sassafras officinale Nees & Eberm.
Sassafras variifolium (Salisb.) Kuntze
Sassafras sassafras (L.) Karst.
Sassafras, white sassafras, ague tree, cinnamon wood, smelling stick, saloop, gumbo file, mitten tree
Sassafras is native to eastern North America. The bark from its roots is processed for sassafras oil, used in perfumes; its leaves produce a spice called gumbo filé.
Identification: Sassafras trees are up to 60' (18 m) tall and 40' (12 m) around, with an irregular trunk and brown bark that is light brown on the inside. The bark develops coarse ridges and furrows over time. Leaves are alternate, most often split into three lobes, sometimes without lobes, and 3-7" (7.6-17 cm) long. The three-lobed leaves look a little like three-fingered mittens. They are very colorful in the fall. The leaves have a fragrant smell when they are crushed, resembling that of eucalyptus or, by some accounts, Juicy Fruit gum. Flowers are a bright yellow-green color, appearing in April to May. Fruits are dark blue, shiny, oval in shape, ¼" (8.5 mm) long, attached to a red petiole (stem) with a cup-shaped tip.
Edibility: Bark from young sassafras roots is mostly used now to perfume soaps, but in the past it has been used to flavor tea and root beer. However, the active ingredient, safarole, is mildly toxic and weakly carcinogenic: it has been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The ground, dried leaves are used to produce gumbo filé, used to flavor and thicken Cajun and Creole gumbos. Filé has, according to spice purveyor McCormick, “a flavor similar to thyme and savory” and “a characteristic citrus flavor.”
Sassafras albidum on plants.ces.ncsu.edu
Sassafras albidum at the Missouri Botanical Garden
Sassafras albidum at the Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
Sassafras albidum at the USDA Forest Service's Silvics of North America site
Sassafras albidum on the USDA Plants Database
Sassafras albidum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Sassafras albidum on www.hbd.org (home brewing instructions)
Sassafras albidum description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 25 May 2020.
Range: Zones 4-9: