Field Guides



Sassafras albidum


Kingdom: Plantae

Division: Angiosperms

Class: Magnoliids

Order: Laurales

Family: Lauraceae

Other names: ague tree

Species description:

The leaves are simple and alternating with pinnate venation (Gilman and Watson, 1994). There are three leaf types on each plant: oval, one-thumb mitten, and two-thumb mitten (Immel, 2001). The leaves are between 5 cm and 10 cm wide and 10 cm to 20 cm long (Gilman and Watson 1994). Leaves are green in the summer and yellow-orange or red-orange in the fall (Immel, 2001). In young trees, the bark is a greenish color. In older trees, the bark is tough and ridged, and is a reddish-brown color (Immel, 2001). Sassafras full-grown is of a medium height, and is typically about 9 to 18 meters tall (Immel, 2001).

Life history:

Sassafras is a dioecious tree (Immel, 2001). The plant produces yellow flowers from April to May (Phillips, 1979). They are 1 cm wide with six sepals that are 3 to 5 mm long (Immel, 2001). Sassafras trees start producing fruit after 10 years and produce the best fruits when they are 25 to 50 years old. They bear good fruits every 1 or 2 years (Griggs). Fruits ripen in August and September (Immel, 2001). They are small, oval-shaped, and dark blue with thick red stalks (Immel, 2001). The fruits are approximately 8 to 13 mm long (Gilman and Watson, 1994).


Sassafras is typically found in areas with direct sunlight or partial shade. It can be

found in acidic soils, and in woods, fields, or along roads. Trees are easily adaptable and can, therefore, survive in dry soils (Immel, 2001). However, they are most successful in moist, sandy loam soils (Griggs). Sassafras is known to be a pioneer species on disturbed sites due to its ability to survive in soils with low pH levels (Immel, 2001). Sassafras does best in soils with pH levels from 6 to 7 (Griggs).


Sassafras is native to southern Missouri. It is also found in the region ranging from eastern Texas and Oklahoma to the east coast and up to southwestern Maine. Sassafras is also native to southern Ontario (Griggs).


Native Americans used this plant for a number of medicinal purposes. It was used to treat colds, flus, stomachaches, measles, rheumatism, insomnia, and arthritis. It was also important for preventing illnesses by cleaning the blood, bowels, and kidneys (Cavender, 2006). Sassafras roots can still be boiled to make a tea, and can be ingested in moderation (Phillips, 63). The use of root beer made from sassafras roots dates back to the colonial times. Sassafras was one of the main ingredients in root beer until it was found to be carcinogenic; therefore, artificial sassafras flavoring is now found in root beer (Funderburg, 92-3).

In one study, sassafras was turned into an aqueous extract and was then injected into black rats. .5 mL of a solution including the liquid sassafras was injected once a week for 78 weeks into 15 male and 15 female rats. 30 rats were injected with a saline solution and were used as a control. Then there was a 12-week observation period. If a tumor was found, injections stopped. Once the tumor grew to a large enough size, the rat was killed and the tumor tissue and other organs were examined. At the end of the experiment, the remaining rats were killed and the same examinations also took place. They found that 66% of the rats injected with the sassafras extract produced tumors. They concluded that sassafras is hazardous if used for a significant period of time (Kapadia et al., 1978). Safrole, a major component of the oil of sassafras has been found to be carcinogenic in humans. One study found that when mice ingested high doses of safrole, liver tumors began appearing only one year later. Safrole has not been found to be hugely carcinogenic; it is a lot less harmful than other carcinogens. In addition, humans typically consume safrole at a level no more than 10-6 (Miller and Miller 1983). Therefore, sassafras can be ingested in small quantities every so often, but should not be consumed on a regular basis because of these risks.

Distribution map:



Bellis M. The History of Root Beer. Inventors Accessed October 23, 2013.

Cavender A. Folk Medical Uses of Plant Foods in Southern Appalachia, United StatesJournal of Ethnopharmacology. 2006; 108(1): 74-84.

Funderburg AC. Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains. Popular Press; 2002.

Gilman EF, Watson DG. Sassafras albidum (Fact Sheet ST-584). United States Department of Agriculture. Published October 1994. Accessed October 23, 2013.

Griggs MM. Sassafras. U.S. Forest Service Silvics Manual Accessed November 23, 2013.  

Immel DL., 2001. Sassafras. Plant Guide. United States Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service  Published September 27, 2001. Accessed October 23, 2013.

Kapadia GJ, Chung EB, Ghosh B et al. Carcinogenicity of Some Folk Medicinal Herbs in Rats. JNCI J National Cancer Institute. 1978; 60(3): 683-686.

Miller JA, Miller AC. The Metabolic Activation and Nucleic Acid Adducts of Naturally-Occurring Carcinogens. Br. J. Cancer. 1983; 48:1-15.  

Phillips J. Sassafras. Wild Edibles of Missouri. 2nd ed. Jefferson City, MO: Missouri Dept. of Conservation, 1979: 62-63.