Nature Bulletin No. 116 May 17, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation
People used to believe that their blood became thick and impure
during winter. Every spring they drank quantities of aromatic tea
brewed from roots of the sassafras tree. The early Virginia colonists
sent out expeditions to obtain these roots, and shipped them to
England where the tea was a fashionable drink believed to cure all
sorts of diseases. We know better now, but sassafras is still used as a
tea and the oil for its aromatic quality in some medicines, perfumes
Sassafras grows only in the southeastern part of Cook County but is
abundant farther south, particularly in hilly country where it grows in
thickets on roadsides, in clearings and in abandoned fields. It prefers
well drained soils and will flourish on poor soils where other trees
have a hard time getting started. It serves as a nurse crop to shade and
protect young oaks and other hardwoods. It is a fast-growing tree that
spreads from its roots as well as from its seed. In rich bottomlands a
large sassafras will be found occasionally, but generally they do not
exceed 6 inches in diameter.
The bark of the trunk is thick, red-brown and deeply furrowed. The
twigs are bright green. Its large dark-green leaves are peculiar; it is
one of the few trees having leaves of very different shape on the same
tree, or even the same twig. Some are oval; others have one lobe like
the thumb on a mitten; others have three large lobes. The small
greenish male flowers and female flowers usually occur on separate
trees. The fruit is an oblong, dark blue or black, shiny berry
surrounded at the base by a scarlet cup on a scarlet stalk. It is eaten by
Sassafras wood is soft, light, brittle and weak, but very durable in soil
and used extensively for fence posts and bean poles on farms. In
pioneer days it was used to make rail fences, yokes for oxen, barrels
and small boats.
Sassafras should be planted more frequently as an ornamental shade
tree. It grows fast, and in autumn its leaves turn to a brilliant saffron.
In country where they commonly grow together, the scarlet of the sour
gum, the purple and red of sumac, and the saffron of the sassafras
painted landscapes of vivid beauty.
Does anyone know the origin of the name? Is it Indian?
To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Update: June 2012