Publication Year: 

Image retrieved from on October 24th, 2014.

This tree [Sassafras] of the Laurel family is native of North America, where it grows abundantly; in parts of the southern USA the air becomes impregnated with its aroma. It is an ornamental deciduous tree, with mucilaginous twigs and foliage. It grows between 10 and 40ft (3 and 12m) high, according to situation, and has small yellowish-green flowers on pendant spikes and panicles, which bloom in May and June before the leaves appear. Male and female flowers are found on different trees. The leaves are pale green and downy on the underside. Sassafras fruit somewhat resembles that of the cinnamon, which gives the tree the common name of cinnamon wood. The trunk of the tree produces a useful hard wood.
The tree was first discovered by the Spaniards who were taught its medicinal value by the Red Indians. Nicholas Monardes, a Spanish herbalist, author of the first book on the use of herbs in the New World, wrote in 1569, 'The Spaniards did begin to cure themselves with the water of this tree and it did in them greate effects, that it is almost incredible, for with the naughtie meates and drinkyng of the rawe waters, and slepying in the dewes, the moste parte of them came to fall into continual agues.' Living as he did in Seville, during a period of plague there: 'Many did use to carrie a peece of the Roote of the wood with them to smell to it continually as to a Pomander. For with his smell so acceptable it did rectifie the infected ayre.' The name sassafras evolved from Spanish efforts to pronounce the word saxifrage, which they believed to have similar virtues. It is also known as ague tree, from the belief that it was a cure for that unpleasant disease.
Sassafras was introduced to Europe by way of France, but it was Drake who brought the roots from North America to England. Here sassafras tea was immediately accepted as a cure for all ills, including drunkenness. The tea, called saloop, became the fashionable beverage among English gentlemen, who gathered at street stalls to partake publicly of the new brew while exchanging the scandals of the day. When it became known that sassafras tea was not the true saloop – which was the product of tubers of a kind of orchid – and, even worse, that it was the North American Indians' cure for the French pox, it was considered discreet to cease the taking of such a remedy, at least in public. Saloop then became the poor man's beverage; it was sold in the streets at day break, and became one of the cries of London. Served with sugar and milk, it became the favourite drink of porters, coal-heavers and other hard-working men. At times it was combined with true saloop.
Sassafras tea became a dependable North American country spring medicine, and was often combined with other blood-cleansing herbs. It was mixed with broth for invalids and children, and given to babies after weaning. Powdered saloop could be obtained, and a dessertspoonful was then added to boiling water: after stirring, the preparation became a jelly, and it was customary to add white wine and sugar, or sometimes milk. Saloop and flour was made into bread. It is still taken for bladder, kidney, chest and throat troubles, but today is rarely given alone.
The root, wood, and bark of the tree possess the same medicinal qualities, and are used for rheumatism, gout and arthritis. The bark of the root contains a volatile oil which has antiseptic properties. A warm infusion of the bark is considered a good blood purifier and tonic for the bowels. Lotions are given as an eye-wash, and for skin diseases and eruptions.
Oil of sassafras from both wood and bark is used for toothache, and it is also made into a dentifrice. It is a useful essence in the making of the cheaper types of soaps and perfumes, and is a pleasant antiseptic wash. The roots produce a peach-coloured dye, and the bark, with an alummordant, makes a good yellow.
The mucilaginous leaves have been used in the thickening of soup, and the young shoots were brewed into a kind of beer in Virginia. They are now employed in the flavouring of soft drinks. A rose-coloured tea is made from the dried bark, which is known as arthritis tea, and a few chips may be added to China tea.
The following is a 19th-century recipe.

Sassafras cordial

1/2lb. Sassafras chips. 2oz. sarsparilla, 1oz. gum arabic dissolved in white wine, 1 oz. bruised juniper berries, 2ozs. ground pistachio nuts, 1oz. syrup of lemons, 2ozs. rosemary leaves and 1oz. marjoram, both finely shredded, 1 oz. each of candied lemon and citron, 9ozs. sugar, 12 stoned and cut muscatel raisins, 3qts. Sherry and 2qts. of proof spirits of wine.

These ingredients were put in a jar, corked and sealed, and the jar set in a bath of hot water. It was infused for a week; kept for 2 months, then strained and filtered, when it was ready for use. Sassafras cordial improved with age.

pp. 159-164 of A Country Herbal by Lesley Gordon (1980)