Cyprus Mail

Plant of the week: Attractive tree highly poisonous but used by Eclectics

Name: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Otherwise known as: Sassafrax, Fennel Wood

Habitat: A deciduous tree of the Lauraceae family growing up to 20m in densely forested areas of North America. It has large, aromatic, ovate and occasionally tri-lobate leaves. It produces clusters of yellow flowers in the axils that transform into small blue berries on red stalks. In all, a most attractive tree.

What does it do: Sassafras was one of the first Native American plants to come to the notice of the Eclectics, the early pioneering group of physicians that accompanied the first European settlers to the Americas. They studied the folk medicine practices of the local shamen that used the oil extracted from the root bark to treat syphilis, gonorrhea and made potions to relieve the pain from rheumatism and the disfigurement of eczema. Very soon it was being exported to Europe where it is recorded that Dr Johnson, the great lexicographer, expressed his delight in receiving a spray which was transferred to his botanical garden.

The tree contains a number of alkaloids such as safrole and asarone, as well as pinenes and thujone – all highly toxic. However, this did not prevent the street vendors in 19th century London selling a flask of beer made from the root called ‘saloop’. Victorian herbalists sold root oil to treat gout, kidney and menstrual complaints, it was claimed to reduce blood pressure.

Extracts of the plant are still used in the production of cosmetics and the dried leaves are ground to make ‘file’ powder, which is an essential ingredient of the traditional Louisiana dish File Gumbo.

Alexander McCowan is author of  The World’s most Dangerous Plants

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