By Jo-Ann Kaiser
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
COMMON NAMES HEIGHT/WEIGHT PROPERTIES 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, 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.
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
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
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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