Sassafras is indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, occurring in Florida, Virginia, and as far north as Canada. It is found as far west as Kansas, but is there very scarce. Its occurrence in Brazil is recorded by Piso, 1658 (511). Sassafras was in medicinal use among the natives of Florida long before Ponce de Leon in 1512 set foot on the soil of this peninsula. It is generally stated and believed that the Spaniards in 1538, which is the date of De Soto's invasion of Florida, were the first Europeans to obtain knowledge of this drug; yet we can find no record of such a discovery in at least two narratives of this expedition that are accessible to us. On the other hand, there seemed to be sufficient evidence of the fact that the Spaniards gained a knowledge of sassafras and its medicinal virtues through the French Huguenot emigrants, who under their unfortunate leaders, Jean Ribault and Rene Laudonniere, occupied Florida between the years 1562 and 1564.
To the Spanish physician, Nicolaus Monardes (447), of Sevilla, in 1574, is to be credited the first detailed description of sassafras and its healing virtues, his information being gained, however, not from any actual experience in the sassafras lands but from personal consultation with travelers and from the government records at his command (239). From Clusius' (153) version of Monardes, 1593 (447), it is learned that the drug was imported from Florida into Spain some years previous to 1574, that the Spaniards in Florida, when overtaken by fevers and other diseases consequent to miasma and unwholesome drinking water, were advised by the few remaining Frenchmen to use this drug, which was called by the French sassafras (for reasons unknown to Monardes) and "pavame" by the Indians from whom the French obtained their information. Monardes (in Clusius' version) adds that sassafras grows in Florida in maritime places, such as are neither too dry nor too moist, being especially plentiful near the harbors of St. Helena and St. Matthews, where they form whole woods, which exhale such a fragrance (not true in the experience of this writer) that the Spaniards who first landed believed the tree to be the same as the cinnamon tree of Ceylon.
The illustration given by Monardes of the sassafras tree has been widely copied in the herbals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, among which we name Dalechamps (1586) (181), Joh. Bauhinus (Bauhin, 47) (1650), and Piso (1658) (511), the latter giving it the Brazilian synonym "anhuiba."
Francisco Hernandez (314), another Spanish physician, who traveled through Mexico between the years 1571 and 1577, speaks of the occurrence of sassafras at Mechuacan in Mexico. His work was translated by Francisco Ximinez, a monk of the convent of San Domingo in Mexico, in 1615.
The latter author is quoted at length on the subject of sassafras by Jean de Laet (368), a noted Dutch geographer (who died in 1649), whose work, "Novus Orbis, etc., 1633," testifies to the probably French origin of the knowledge of sassafras. Having taken the account given by Laudonniere as his source, he speaks, in Chapter XIV, concerning the land and inhabitants of the part of Florida traversed by the French, and calls attention to the tree as being prominent in the woods and refers to the exquisite odor of its wood and bark. He says that this tree is called "pavame" by the Indians and "sassafras" by the French.
Soon after the discovery of sassafras the drug was exported to Europe, as before stated, and became at once known in Spain and France. It was well known in Frankfort-on-the-Main as early as 1582, and in Hamburg in 1587, at which time it was (F. A. Flückiger, Am. Jour. Phar., 1876, p. 367) termed lignum pavanum sen floridum, seu xylomarathri (fennel-wood). Sailing expeditions to America were undertaken in those times to secure the wood as well as the root. An English merchant, Martin Pring, is recorded by Charles Pickering (510) as having with two small vessels arrived on the American coast in the beginning of June, 1603. The point named is 43 degrees and 44 degrees northern latitude, among a multitude of islands. Following the coast south in search of sassafras he entered a large sound, and on the north side in the latitude 41 degrees and "odde" minutes built a hut and enclosed it with a barricade, where some of the party kept guard while others collected sassafras in the woods. The natives were treated with kindness, and the last of the two vessels departed freighted on the 9th of August.
In connection with the introduction of sassafras root into England, Daniel Hanbury (Proc. Am. Phar. Assoc., 1871, p. 491) unearthed the following interesting record contained in the Calendars of State Papers of the Public Record Office:
"Instructions for suche thinges as are to be sente from Virginia. 1610.
"(i) Small Sassafras Rootes to be drawen in the winter and dryed and none to be medled with in the somer and yt is worthe 50£ and better, p. Tonne," etc.
But, still, the exact botanical origin of sassafras was not known to the writers of the seventeenth century. While they were well acquainted with the peculiar foliage and the other characteristics of the tree, the flowers and the fruit were expressly stated to be unknown to such writers as Clusius (153), (Monardes) (447), 1593, Joh. Bauhinus (47) (1650), and Piso (511) (1658).
Two early statements concerning the fruit may, however, now be recorded.
Caspar Bauhinus (48), who named the sassafras tree "arbor ex Florida ficulneo folio," in 1623 reports that specimens of the leaves and the fruit of the tree were sent to him by Dr. Doldius, of Nuremberg, and he describes the fruit as oblong, rugose, and attached to very long pedicels.
Likewise Jean de Laet (368), in the index to the chapter on sassafras of his afore-mentioned book, requests the reader to insert in the text that the fruits of this tree were brought to the notice of the author by a person returning from Novo Belgio, and adds that the fruit does not differ much in form from the berries of the laurel, although it is much smaller. It contains a white nut of bitterish taste, divided into two parts.
As far as we can ascertain, Plukenet (514a), as late as the year 1691, was the first to give an illustration of the berry, which, however, is faulty, because it is void of the acorn-like calyx. The trilobed leaves are also illustrated, and the botanical name affixed to it by Plukenet is "cornus mas odorata, foliis trifido, margine piano, sassafras dicta."
Catesby (130), true to his task as set forth in the title of his book on the natural history of Virginia, etc., viz.: to correct faulty illustration of plants by preceding authors, gives (in 1731) a good picture of sassafras, including the fruit and flowers.
In the middle and latter part of the eighteenth and the earlier part of the nineteenth century sassafras was studied in its native country by such celebrated travelers as Peter Kalm (350), J. David Schoepf (582), F. A. Michaux (433), and Fred Pursh (528). Peter Kalm's account especially (350) contains many points of interest.
The author's boyhood was spent in the country, in Kentucky, where sassafras abounds. I do not remember to have smelled the fragrance of sassafras trees, mentioned by these early authorities, unless the trees were broken or bruised. I have passed through great thickets of young and old trees and am sure that the statement that the fragrance is wafted far out to sea is overdrawn, as I observed no odor whatever, and am satisfied that sassafras exhales no aroma. When land in Kentucky is "worked poor" and turned out to rest it is likely to spring up in thickets of sassafras, persimmon, and black locust. I have heard old farmers, in speaking of a farm, say it was "too poor to raise sassafras," and no greater reflection could be cast on that land. No especial value is put on sassafras wood, it is not sought for fence posts nor is it used to drive away insects of any description.
As a remedy the bark is used in the spring to "thin the blood," being drunk as a tea. Indeed, I do not dislike it as a beverage, early impressions leading me now to take a package of fresh bark home with me occasionally for a family dish of sassafras tea. This is made exactly as coffee is prepared as a beverage, and is sweetened and used with cream in the same way. That sassafras tea was a very common beverage in my boyhood days may be shown by the following incident: I was traveling up the Ohio River on one of the palatial steamers of other days, and the waiter asked a Kentuckian at my side who ordered tea, "what kind of tea" he wanted. "Store tea," he answered, "I kin git pleanty of sassafras at home."
It is not customary for sassafras drinkers to keep the root-bark separated from the root, the recently dug roots being shaved as the bark was used. Kentuckians claim that there are two varieties of sassafras, the red sassafras and the white, distinguished only by the bark. The white sassafras is not so aromatic and is bitter to the taste, and they use only the red bark.
In addition to the wood, root and bark, mucilage of the pith is employed in domestic medicine to bathe inflamed eyes. I find a complete description of the domestic uses of sassafras in Rafinesque's Medical Flora, 1830, which for various reasons I feel called upon to reproduce as an ending to this record of sassafras.
Found from Canada to Mexico and Brazil. Roots, bark, leaves, flowers, fragrant and spicy. Flavor and smell peculiar, similar to fennel, sweetish sub-acrid, residing in a volatile oil heavier than water. The sassafrine, a peculiar mucus unalterable by alcohol, found chiefly in the twigs and pith, thickens water, very mild and lubricating, very useful in opthalmia, dysentery, gravel, catarrh, etc. Wood yellow, hard, durable, soon loses the smell; the roots chiefly exported for use as stimulant, antispasmodic, sudorific, and depurative; the oil now often substituted; both useful in rheumatism, cutaneous diseases, secondary syphilis, typhus fevers, etc. Once used in dropsy. The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and clean the body in the spring; we use instead the tea of the blossoms for a vernal purification of the blood. The powder of the leaves used to make glutinous gombos. Leaves and buds used to flavor some beers and spirits. Also deemed vulnerary and resolvent chewed and applied, or menagogue and corroborant for women in tea; useful in scurvy, cachexy, flatulence, etc. Bowls and cups made of the wood, when fresh, it drives bugs and moths. The bark dyes wood of a fine orange color called "shikih" by Missouri tribes, and smoked like tobacco.