Herb: Sassafras

Latin name: Sassafras albidum

Synonyms: Laurus albida, Sassafras officinale, Sassafras sassafras

Family: Lauraceae (Laurel Family)

Medicinal use of Sassafras:

Sassafras has a long history of herbal use. It was widely employed by many native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a wide range of complaints, valuing it especially for its tonic effect upon the body. It is still commonly used in herbalism and as a domestic remedy. The root bark and root pith are alterative, anodyne, antiseptic, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, stimulant and vasodilator. A tea made from the root bark is particularly renowned as a spring tonic and blood purifier as well as a household cure for a wide range of ailments such as gastrointestinal complaints, colds, kidney ailments, rheumatism and skin eruptions. The mucilaginous pith from the twigs has been used as a poultice or wash for eye ailments and is also taken internally as a tea for chest, liver and kidney complaints. An essential oil from the root bark is used as an antiseptic in dentistry and also as an anodyne. The oil contains safrole, which is said to have carcinogenic activity and has been banned from use in American foods - though it is less likely to cause cancer than alcohol. In large doses the oil is poisonous, causing dilated pupils, vomiting, stupor, collapse and kidney and liver damage. The oil has been applied externally to control lice and treat insect bites, though it can cause skin irritation.

Description of the plant:


25 m
(82 feet)

May to


Habitat of the herb:

Deciduous woodlands and thickets on rich sandy well-drained soils. Found on moist soils.

Edible parts of Sassafras:

Leaves - raw or cooked. The young leaves can be added to salads whilst both old and young leaves can be used as a flavouring and as a thickening agent in soups etc. They have a mild aromatic flavour. The leaves are often dried and ground into powder for later use. The young shoots have been used to make a kind of beer. The dried root bark can be boiled with sugar and water until it forms a thick paste. It is then used as a condiment. The root and the berries can also be used as flavourings. Winter buds and young leaves - raw. A tea is made from the root bark, it is considered to be a tonic. The tea can also be made by brewing the root in maple syrup, this can be concentrated into a jelly. A tea can also be made from the leaves and the roots. It is best in spring. A tea can be made from the flowers.

Other uses of the herb:

An essential oil is obtained from the bark of the root and also from the fruits. One hundred kilos of root chips yield one litre of essential oil under steam pressure - this oil comprises about 90% safrol. The oil is medicinal and is also used in soaps, the coarser kinds of perfumery, toothpastes, soft drinks etc. It is also used as an antiseptic in dentistry. A yellow dye is obtained from the wood and the bark. It is brown to orange. The plant repels mosquitoes and other insects. Wood - coarse-grained, soft, weak, fragrant, brittle, very durable in the soil. It weighs 31lb per cubic foot and is used for fence posts and items requiring lightness.

Propagation of Sassafras:

Seed - best sown as soon as ripe in a cold frame. Stored seed requires 4 months cold stratification at 4C. It is best sown as early in the year as possible. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots as soon as possible and grow them on in the greenhouse. One report says to harden off the plants as soon as possible, but young plants are frost-tender and so we recommend growing them on in the greenhouse for their first winter and then planting them out in early summer. Give the young trees some protection for at least their first winter outdoors. Root cuttings, taken from suckers, 1 - 2cm long taken in December. Plant horizontally in pots in a greenhouse. Suckers in late winter. Plant straight out into their permanent positions.

Cultivation of the herb:

Deciduous woodlands and thickets on rich sandy well-drained soils. Found on moist soils.

Known hazards of Sassafras albidum:

The extracted essential oil is poisonous in large quantities. The essential il contains safrole which is known to be carcinogenic and potentially harmful to the liver. The essential oil has been banned as a food flavouring in America, even though the potential toxicity is lower than that of alcohol.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.