Wood of the Month:
Sassafras: Famous for Tea,
Tonics & Lumber

By Jo-Ann Kaiser


FAMILY NAMES
Sassafras albidum and Sassafras officinale of the family Lauraceae

COMMON NAMES
Sassafras, cinnamon wood, red
sassafras, golden elm, saxifraxtree, sassafac, aguetree.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT
Height varies with region. Southern trees generally grow tallest with average heights of 80 feet. Weight range is 28 to 31 pounds per cubic foot.

PROPERTIES
Care is needed during drying or wood may check. Medium strength in all categories except for stiffness. Wood is suitable for steam bending, is easily worked, takes a finish well and glues well. Pre-boring necessary when nailing. Small movement in service. Wood is generally straight-grained. Sapwood is narrow and yellow-white in color. Holds screws better than nails.

Sassafras, also known as golden elm, grows throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States, from Maine to Iowa and south to Texas and Florida. The highest concentration occurs in Arkansas and Missouri. Sassafras lumber and veneer are limited in supply and derive from two closely related species, Sassafras officinale and Sassafras albidum.

Sassafras wood is light in color, from a pale brown to an orangeish brown. It resembles ash, chestnut and hackberry in appearance, but is softer than all three. Sassafras is noted for being a "soft" hardwood with an interesting grain pattern.

Museum-Quality Furniture
Custom woodworker Charles Radtke of Cedarburg, WI, is well acquainted with sassafras wood. He used sassafras in a chest he built, which will be displayed beginning this month in the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art. The Smithsonian Institution has purchased Radtke's piece for its permanent collection.

Radtke hand-picked the sassafras he used in the chest from a dealer in Missouri, his native state. The piece has a mahogany frame with sassafras panels inside and out. He hand-planed the wood and finished it with shellac. "Sassafras is a great wood to work," Radtke said. "It has consistent growth with no odd shapes. It is stable and when cut from the grain and dried, will not warp, cup or check. In looks, it reminds some people of ash or white oak but its color when green is a very light rust. While it has an open grain like ash, it is softer. It is also fairly strong and works well with machine or hand tools and finishes well using shellac or oils." Radtke has used a mix of shop-sawn veneer and solid panels in his custom designs. He buys sassafras from Missouri and Pennsylvania.

"Growing up in Missouri, my parents made sassafras tea for us whenever we were sick," Radtke said. "They probably found it was a good way to get us to drink liquids. Sassafras tea has a pleasant taste, almost like root beer. My father, a butcher, also used sassafras alone and with hickory to smoke meats such as ham and sausage. Sassafras is very aromatic and is an incredible wood for smoking meat."

A Wood of Mystical Properties
Quite a bit of lore and legend surround the tree. In the early 1600s, ships were sent from England with the sole purpose of collecting sassafras, which was converted into a tonic that people of the era believed to be a fountain of youth, as well as having healing properties. Donald Culross Peattie, writing in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, noted that its reputation as a cure-all dates to 1574 when Nicholas Monardes, known as the physician of Seville, wrote of sassafras, claiming it was a remedy for malaria and "large importunate fevers," a comfort for the liver, stomach and head, a cold remedy and an appetite inducement.

Peattie described its role in American folklore as unique. "About it (sassafras) have clung fantastic hopes and promises of gain, and superstitions that have not yet wholly departed. The wood, which has less shrinkage in drying than any other hardwood (10 percent), is not only durable, so that it appealed to the pioneer for fences, and is still esteemed for small boats, but its odor was reputed to drive away bedbugs."

Albert Constantine Jr., in the book Know Your Woods, wrote that American settlers believed that sassafras wood bedsteads had the power to drive away certain "nightly visitors which disturbed slumber" and that sassafras beds induced sleep.

Sassafras twigs are supposed to aid in producing saliva. Peattie wrote that most hikers know to chew on the twigs to cure a dry mouth when they are without water.

Sassafras tea is made by boiling the tree's flowers and root bark. Sassafras oil is distilled from the tree's roots and is used as a perfume in soaps and an ingredient in medicine. Pioneers also used the bark to dye material orange.

Tallest Growth is in the South
While the majority of Sassafras trees are medium in size, the species grows taller in the South, where it can top 100 feet, with diameters of 3 to 6 feet. In some parts of the country sassafras is no more than a shrub-sized tree.

Sassafras can be used for everything from furniture to fence posts and boxes to boat parts. Selected logs are sliced into veneer. Use of sassafras is described as limited for both lumber and veneer.

While some species are in danger of extinction, sassafras trees are increasing in number. "In northern Illinois," Peattie wrote, "sassafras seems to be gaining ground, and is present in places from which it was unreported by the first botanical explorers. Because its bright blue fruits are eagerly eaten by birds and the seeds carried and then voided, it seems destined to continue to grow while so many other trees are losing ground."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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