Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Sassafras
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 and candies.

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 many birds.

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?

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