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SassafrasPosted Wednesday, September 28, 2011, at 1:36 PM
For photo prints, go to www.stevenfoster.com/prints.html
The chief chemical constituent of the essential oil of sassafras, safrole, comprising 80 -- 90 percent of the weight of the oil, is responsible for the characteristic flavor of sassafras.
FDA studies conducted on the effects of safrole in rats, resulting in a ruling published in the Federal Register in 1960, prohibited the further use of safrole (and sassafras oil) as a flavoring in foods. Laboratory tests found safrole to cause liver cancer in rats. The beverage industry voluntarily withdrew safrole as a flavoring agent from root beer or related products.
Native Indian groups used the dried leaves as a soup base. Cajun settlers adopted the practice and made it famous.
Leaves are powdered, then sifted to remove stringy fibers. The leaves are very mucilaginous and give soup a ropy consistency. It is the base of gumbo filé or gumbo zab.
Dr. George Washington Carver, of peanut and sweet potato fame, said of the dried preparation, "It can be cooked with the soup, etc., or put in a salt shaker and placed on the table to be used at will, like salt and pepper. It is most wholesome and appetizing." Of course, it has to be free of safrole.
I am reminded by sassafras, which botanists deem Sassafras albidum, in autumn when the leaves become brilliant red, buff orange or leather yellow.
Late summer drought seems to start the color change in sassafras. In Arkansas, I've seen entire sassafras trees along our roadsides and forest edges turn bright red by mid-August. Generally a small tree in the Ozarks, if left alone it reaches towering heights. I know of one specimen in the Sylamore District of the Ozark National Forest in Stone County, Arkansas, with a trunk more than four feet in breadth.
Perhaps no other tree holds such an important place in American history (with the exception of a single cherry tree). One of the first exports from the New World, sassafras exports rivaled tobacco.
As a salubrious tea, both as a beverage and a blood thinner, sassafras's fame is unexcelled. As a controversial "health food," sassafras is infamous. The sassafras story is one of fact, fallacy, and fortune -- a story that has yet to end.
Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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