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Published In: Systema Laurinarum 490. 1836. (30 Oct-5 Nov 1836) (Syst. Laur.) Name publication detailView in BotanicusView in Biodiversity Heritage Library

Project Name Data (Last Modified On 8/25/2017)
Acceptance : Accepted
Project Data     (Last Modified On 7/9/2009)
Status: Native


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1. Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees (sassafras)

S. albidum var. molle (Raf.) Fernald

Pl. 445 l–o; Map 2012

Plants trees to 20(–40) m tall, often colonial from root suckers, the bark coarsely and deeply furrowed, reddish brown to gray, aromatic when broken or bruised. Twigs yellowish green to greenish brown (on older portions), glabrous or nearly so, producing a spicy aroma when broken or bruised. Winter buds sessile, ovoid or the lateral ones sometimes nearly globose, with a few overlapping scales. Leaves short- to more commonly long-petiolate, the petiole usually sparsely to moderately short-hairy. Leaf blades 3–12 cm long, variously all entire or more commonly with 1 or 2 large lobes, ovate to elliptic obovate in outline, long-tapered at the base, the blade or lobes angled or tapered to bluntly or sharply pointed tips; the exposed undersurface appearing strongly grayish and usually densely silky-hairy when young, the upper surface glabrous and often somewhat shiny at maturity, the undersurface pale and often somewhat glaucous at maturity, glabrous or sparsely to moderately short-hairy along the veins, the midvein with a pair of prominent, ascending branches from above the base (appearing 3-veined), the venation otherwise pinnate, with a network of fine veinlets between the secondary veins. Inflorescences clusters of short racemes, these occasionally appearing umbellate, appearing terminal (but below the season’s new leaves), produced as the leaves first begin to develop. Flowers short-stalked, the stalks elongating, becoming red and strongly bulbous-thickened toward the tip as the fruit matures. Tepals 3–4 mm long, slender, greenish yellow. Staminate flowers with 3 of the stamens having a pair of bulbous, orange nectaries at the base. Pistillate flowers with 6 staminodes, the ovary ovoid, the style elongate, expanded apically into an asymmetrical, sometimes slightly 2-lobed stigma. Fruits dark blue berries, appearing somewhat jointed to the tip of the expanded, red stalk, 7–10 mm long, ovoid to broadly ellipsoid, shiny, the stone 4–7 mm long, broadly ellipsoid, with the surface uniformly light to dark brown, with a pair of angled longitudinal ridges, otherwise appearing somewhat roughened or granular. 2n=48. April–May.

Scattered to common in the southern 2/3 of the state (eastern U.S. west to Wisconsin, Kansas, and Texas; Canada). Mesic to dry upland forests (mostly along the margins), bottomland forests, upland prairies, glades, savannas, tops of bluffs, slopes of sinkholes, and banks of streams and rivers; also fencerows, fallow fields, railroads, roadsides, and open to shaded disturbed areas.

Steyermark (1963) recognized two varieties within S. albidum differing in the leaf undersurface: the var. albidum (white sassafras), mostly of the northeastern United States, with the developing leaves relatively sparsely hairy and the mature leaves glabrous; and the widespread var. molle (red sassafras), with the developing leaves densely hairy and the mature leaves sparsely hairy along the veins. These two morphotypes are striking in their extremes but intergrade entirely, even within individual populations.

Sassafras has a long history of use medicinally and in foods. It was one of the earliest exports from the American colonies to England (Sokolov, 1981). The bark, leaves, and roots were used in teas and tonics for a variety of ills ranging from liver and stomach problems to fevers, vomiting, and venereal diseases. Colonists learned of the usefulness of sassafras form Native Americans, who used the plant to treat worms, diarrhea, rheumatism, halitosis, colds, bee stings, heart troubles, and numerous other conditions. (Moerman, 1998). Sassafras is also an important ingredient in gumbos and other dishes in Creole cuisine. The powdered leaves are called filé and have been used as a flavoring and thickener in place of (or in addition to) okra fruits (Hibiscus esculentus L.). However, the plant parts contain a substance known as American oil, which is mostly composed of safrole. Safrole is an irritant and in the 1950s was linked to liver lesions, necrosis, and cancer (Sokolov, 1981; Burrows and Tyrl, 2001). The use of sassafras extracts or plant parts containing safrole in teas, tonics, and extracts has been banned in many countries including the United States. Apparently filé remains legal, perhaps because it contains too little safrole to pose a problem (Sokolov, 1981).

Sassafras was also an ingredient in root beer, along with the bark of Betula lenta L. (sweet birch), the roots of Smilax glauca Walter (sarsparilla), and the stems and leaves of Gaultheria procumbens L. (wintergreen) (Sokolov, 1981). Aside from the toxicity and illegality of using sassafras in this pungent beverage, manufacturers eventually found it easier to make root beer with substitute colorants and flavorings, and with carbonation substituted for the fermentation process.



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