Sassafras is one of those trees surrounded by legend and lore. It is widely prized for its durability, making it a good choice for fencing and cooperage, as well as for boat building and canoes. But its real claim to fame might be a result of its storied byproducts, not the commercial timber uses. Native Americans and early settlers considered sassafras to be a cure all for all sorts of ailments.
The wood, which continues to be used in furniture, was often used in flooring and bedsteads because people believed the sassafras fragrance would drive away bedbugs and other pesky insects. Early settlers also believed that beds made from sassafras would drive away evil spirits and give people restful sleep.
Sassafras albidum, Sassafras officinale of the Family Lauraceae
Even today, sassafras wood is believed to be endowed with special powers. Author Donald Culross Peattie writes in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, “In West Virginia, it is believed that sassafras hen-roosts keep out chicken lice.”
The root bark was once believed to be a curative, capable of treating everything from headaches to malaria, fever, liver problems, stomachaches and colds. In addition, the wood was believed to increase hunger. Culross Peattie said the greatest value of the wood was most likely in its strong pleasant smell.
Author Albert Constantine Jr., in the book Know Your Woods, writes that sassafras has had a peculiar history. “It was once supposed to possess miraculous healing powers and people believed that it would renew the youth of the human race. The production of sassafras oil is perhaps the largest industry dependent upon this tree.”
Roots are grubbed by the ton and distilled. The root bark and flowers from the trees have long been used to make teas and tonics. The tea, also known as saloop, is pink in color and has the trademark sassafras scent. The roots have been used to make root beer as well as the famous sassafras tea and the oil is still used as a fragrance in candles and soaps. Long ago, the early settlers to the United States even used the bark to create an orange dye for cloth.
Bill Graban, CEO of Prime Lumber Co., Thomasville, NC, says his company said sassafras lumber, but most is being exported. “Most of what we sell goes to Europe, predominately Italy. Because sassafras is similar in looks to chestnut, the exported material is often used as a substitute because European chestnut trees tend to be smaller and shorter than sassafras.”
Graban said the U.S. market does purchase some sassafras. “The sassafras we sell in the United States is usually used for kitchen cabinets. It’s a pretty wood and it smells great when it is freshly cut.” Graban added that chestnut no longer exists as a commercial timber in the United States because of the chestnut blight that devastated domestic supplies.
An Undervalued Wood
“Sassafras is a very undervalued wood,” said Pete Blakenship, sales manager for Burroughs-Ross-Colville LLC, Coast Lumber Co., McMinnwell, TN. “It is very stable and strong. I grew up on a farm back in the ’60s and we always wanted sassafras lumber to build our stock gates with because it takes the weather and has high durability.”
Sassafras has a wide range of uses, including furniture, interior and exterior joinery, windows, doors, door frames, kitchen cabinetry, posts, fencing, boxes, crates, containers, slack cooperage, millwork and boat building.
Two native species of sassafras are most often noted for commercial uses: Sassafras albidum and Sassafras officinale. The two species are closely related in looks and property and are often sold as sassafras. While sassafras is lower in strength than ash, the two are similar in many respects. “The wood of sassafras is easily confused with black ash, which it resembles in color, grain and texture,” write the editors of the USDA Forest Products Laboratory Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material.
The Name Game
Sassafras has a variety of names, from cinnamon wood to red sassafras to golden elm and saxifraxtree. The names are probably a reference to the rich orange and crimson colors that the leaves turn to in autumn. Native Americans called the tree green stick, probably because of its bright green, aromatic twigs, which they sometimes chewed.
Sassafras is a deciduous tree and a member of the Laurel family. In the book Hugh Johnson’s Encyclopedia of Trees, sassafras is described as “by far the most beautiful and most fragrant member of a family, which has its real headquarters in the tropics.”
While sassafras has been transplanted around the world, it is definitely not a tropical wood as it is native to the eastern United States.