The sassafras is not a showy tree. Tucked in along the scrubby areas where forest meets meadow, Sassafras albidum grow in congenial thickets of their ilk, tolerating poor soils but yearning for light and the opportunity to propagate their seeds via the flocking birds that consume their fall berries. The most visible trait of the sassafras tree is its distinctively tri-lobed leaf that looks like a dinosaur’s footprint. At one point, they were related to evergreens, but the sassafras was open to change, and survived as a deciduous remnant of a tenacious primordial forebear.
But the sassafras tree has a secret. Where the trunk plunges tendrils of spidery roots into the sandy loam, something is brewing. Simultaneously earthy and light, spicy and sweet, complex yet distinctive, deep in the veins of the sassafras a nectar harvested by Indians and colonists alike is slowly emerging: safrole. A pungent oil produced by the sassafras tree, safrole is the sassafras’ self-supplied insecticide. It permeates the wood of the tree, especially in the roots, which exude high concentrations of the strongly aromatic oil. Humans have dug up these fragrant roots of sassafras saplings for thousands of years to expose their gripping follicles to the green light of the understory and harvest the bounty for medicinal purposes. The trademark scent of the sassafras root is immediately identifiable upon first encounter- in fact, you’re probably pretty familiar with it already. It’s root beer.
Homemade sassafras root beer fermenting in the bottle. source
Today, the flavoring for root beer is a chemical substitute for the original sassafras-derived ingredient, due to fears of its carcinogenic properties. It’s ironic that we would avoid consuming sassfras for health reasons, when for centuries, that was the whole reason people boiled it in tea, pounded it into powder for capsules, smoked it like a woody cigarillo, and yes, mixed it into frothy soda water with a few mounded spoonfuls of sugar. Since the era of the Indian, Chesapeake residents have been infusing sassfras into every conceivable medium, searching for natural remedies to cure their complaints. In an era before formalized medicine, sassafras was a panacea for a world riddled with disease.
As described in Rafinesque’s 1830 Medical Flora, there wasn’t an ailment that the miracle plant couldn’t soothe:
“[Sassafras is used] in opthalmia, dysentery, gravel, catarrh…as stimulant, antispasmodic, sudorific, and depurative…in rheumatism, cutaneous diseases,
secondary syphilis, typhus fevers… to purge..the body in the spring …for purification of the blood… leaves to make glutinous gombos…buds to flavor beers and spirits…useful in scurvy, cachexy, flatulence. bark … smoked like tobacco. Bowls made of the wood, drives bugs and moths.”
Valued as a cure-all, sassafras root even enjoyed a brief golden era as one of the top exports from the new Chesapeake colonies, as Europeans sought (and ultimately failed) to find exotic treatments to cure the sexually transmitted disease du jour, the “French Pox”. Spreading voraciously throughout the continent in the 16th century, syphilis was typically treated with mercury, a remedy that could often be more horrible than the disease itself. Sassafras, a much gentler option, was therefore understandably popular in spite of the fact that it was probably completely ineffective.
One of the earliest explorers to document his discoveries along the Chesapeake’s terminal connection with the ocean was Thomas Herriott. He observed the native people ingesting the sassafras’ pungent roots, and remarked in his 1588 book, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia:
“Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kinde of wood of most pleasant and sweete smel; and of most rare vertues in phisick for the cure of many diseases.“
Some of the early maps even included depictions of the redolent resource, like John Ferrar’s 1667 map entitled A mapp of Virginia Discovered to ye hills:
Sassafras remained popular in Europe as a remedy for various ailments throughout the colonial period, and the majority of it was exported from the lush, humid forests of the Chesapeake tidewater. 76.5 tons of sassafras were imported to London in 1770 alone, to the tune of 28 pounds per ton. More sassafras stands were discovered as the colonial footprint expanded, and the price of Europe’s favorite snake oil plummeted. But the taste for sassafras had been whetted, and sassafras was favored as a distinctive flavoring even as its popularity as a literal root medicine waned.
Many 19th century concoctions featured sassafras root as a key ingredient. Salop was a popular late-night warming beverage for all classes in London, and the piping restorative was sold by street vendors from steaming samovars. The licorice scent of the sassafras was savored over large white bowls which warmed the hands as the liquid was sipped. An memoir titled Unctuous Memories from 1863 remarks of the experience:
"Suddenly we came upon a still, whence arose the steam of Early Purl, or Salop, flattering our senses. Ye Gods ! what a breakfast ! …I feel its diffusive warmth stealing through me. I taste its unaccustomed and exquisite flavour. Tea is great, coffee greater ; chocolate, properly made, is for epicures; but these are thin and characterless compared with the salop swallowed in 1826. That was nectar.”
According to this ad, even 19th century babies (and their dogs) drank root beer! source
On the other side of the pond, Americans continued to craft sassafras into all sorts of dishes and drinks, and was even utilized to make a kind of rich, red small beer, the alcoholic predecessor to its later sweetened counterpart. Teas, tisanes, jellies and ice cream were mediums for the earthy taste of the safrole. But the most long-lasting of sassafras’ legacy is, of course, root beer. Marketed to the masses for the first time as a soft drink at the 1876 Centennial Exposition by Philadelphia druggist Charles E. Hires, Hires Root Beer retained its whiff of the medicinal and was promoted as a “temperance” drink and a cough cure.
Today, root beer has been stripped of the ingredient that makes it so distinctive: safrole. Feared to be a carcinogen, safrole is now substituted in food and drink with a chemical additive that recreates the flavor of the Chesapeake forest. And the sassafras stands throughout the Bay sigh greenly in relief, knowing their secretly sweet roots will remain deep in their sandy swales, undisturbed by those wishing to savor the taste of a tree’s essence.
(ant to read more about the role of the sassafras tree in early colonial Chesapeake exports? Check out this article.