Laurus Sassafras. Sassafras Tree.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 35. Laurus sassafras. Almost every section of the United States produces the Sassafras tree. It not only inhabits every latitude from New England to Florida, but we are told it is also found in the forests of Mexico and even of Brazil. Its peculiar foliage and the spicy qualities of its bark render it a prominent object of notice, and it seems to have been one of the earliest trees of the North American continent to attract the attention of Europeans. Its character as an article of medicine was at one time so high, that it commanded an extravagant price, and treatises were written to celebrate its virtues. It still retains a place in the best European Pharmacopeias.

The genus of trees and shrubs known by the name of Laurus comprises many of the most useful as well as celebrated products of the vegetable world. The Bay tree or Laurel of the ancients, the Cinnamon tree, Cassia tree, Camphor tree, and Avocado pear, are either of them sufficient to give notoriety to the genus to which they belong. This genus has a calyx of from four to six divisions; nectary of three bisetose glands, or wanting; stamens variable in number; fruit a drupe; flowers often polygamous. The species Sassafras is polygamous, with leaves entire and lobed.

The Laurels constitute one of the few genera assigned by Linnaeus to his class Enneandria, to the first order of which they belong. Jussieu has placed them with his Lauri, to which they give name. The propriety with which they have been associated with the Linnaean natural order Oleraceae is of a very questionable nature.

The Sassafras tree, of the United State, arrives, in favourable situations, to a tall stature and large circumference. In the Northern States, it is of smaller size, yet trees are sometimes met with about Boston which attain to nearly the average height of the woods around them, and have trunks a foot in thickness. The bark of the trunk is much cracked and of a greyish colour; the young twigs are of a reddish green. The leaves are remarkable for the variety of their form on the same tree. Those which proceed first from the bud are usually oval and entire; the next have the same form with a lobe on one side; the last and most numerous have regularly three lobes. They grow on petioles, and are very downy when young, but become smoother by age. The flowers grow from the sides of the branches below the leaves, having the scales of the former bud for their floral leaves. They are disposed in short slender racemes of a pale green colour, each flower having six oblong segments. Different trees produce barren and perfect flowers. The barren flowers have nine stamens, six of which are exterior and three interior. The perfect flowers, the kind represented in our plate, have only six stamens, with short filaments and heart-shaped anthers. Nectary none. Germ roundish with a straight, erect style. Fruit an oval drupe of a deep blue colour, supported by a red incrassated pedicel. Only a small number of the trees produce fruit.

The bark of this tree has a fragrant smell and a very agreeable spicy taste. The flavour of the root is most powerful, that of the branches more pleasant. The flavour and odour reside in a volatile oil which is readily obtained from the bark by distillation. It is of a light colour, becoming darker by age, very pungent, and heavier than water, so that it sinks in that fluid when the drops are sufficiently large to overcome the repulsion at the surface. The bark and pith of the young twigs abound with a pure and delicate mucilage. A very small quantity of the pith infused in a glass of water gives to the whole a ropy consistance, like the white of an egg. This mucilage has the uncommon quality that it is not precipitated, coagulated, or rendered turbid by alcohol. It continues in a perfectly transparent state when mixed with that fluid, though it does not unite with it. When evaporated to dryness, it leaves a light coloured, gum-like residuum.

The volatile oil and the mucilage appear to contain all the medicinal virtue of the tree.

The bark and wood of the Sassafras were formerly much celebrated in the cure of various complaints, particularly syphilis, rheumatism and dropsy. Its reputation, however, as a specific in those diseases, particularly the first, has fallen into deserved oblivion, while it is now recognized only with regard to its general properties, which are those of a warm stimulant and diaphoretic. It is retained by the Dispensatories as an ingredient in several preparations, particularly the compound decoction of guaiacum, formerly called "decoction of the woods;" and the compound decoction of Sarsaparilla, formerly the "Lisbon diet drink." These preparations are useful as sudorifics in rheumatism, some cutaneous diseases, and the sequelae of syphilis. They derive, however, more of their efficacy from their other ingredients, than from the Sassafras, a principal part of the efficacy of which is dissipated by boiling.

The most proper mode of employing the Sassafras is in the form of its volatile oil, which may be given in very small quantities as an antispasmodic, stimulant and sudorific. It is too acrid to be taken unmixed, and should therefore be dissolved in spirit and mixed with water or syrup.

The mucilage of the pith of this tree is peculiarly mild and lubricating, and has been used with much benefit in dysentery, and in catarrhal, as well as calculous affections. Some eminent surgeons have employed it as a lotion in the most inflammatory stages of ophthalmia, to which its softness renders it extremely well suited.

The wood of the Sassafras tree is of a light texture, but is said to be durable when exposed to the weather. It has been thought capable of repelling insects by its odour, and on this account has been employed for trunks, bedsteads, &c. A property of this kind, however, is wrongly attributed to it, since the wood retains scarcely any odour after a few months drying.

Botanical References.

Laurus Sassafras, Linn. Sp. pl.
Pursh, i. 277.
Nuttall, i. 259.
Woodville, iv. t. 234.
Michaux, Fil. Arbres forestiers, iii. 173.
Laurus foliis integris, trilobisve.
Trew, Ehr. t. 69, 70.
Cornus mas odorata, &c.
Plukenet, Alm. 120, t. 222.
Catesby, Car. i. t. 55.

Medical References.

Murray, Apparatus, iv. 535.
Kalm, travels, ii.
Hoffman, Obs. Phys. Chem. 31.
Cullen, Mat. Med. ii. 200.
Clayton, Phil. Trans. Abr. viii. 332.
Bremane, Sassafrasologia in 1627.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.