031. Laurus sassafras. Sassafras-tree.

Botanical name: 

031. Laurus sassafras. 031. Laurus sassafras. C. Synonyma. Sassafras. Pharm. Lond. & Edinb.
Cornus mas odorata, folio trifido, margine plano, Sassafras dicta. Pluk. Alm. 120. Catesb. Carolin. 1. p. 55.
Sassafras sive lignum pavanum. J. Bauh. i. 483.
Sassafras, arbor ex Florida, ficulneo folio. Bauh. Pin. 431.
Sassafras. Gerard emac. 1525. Park. Theat. 1606. Raii Hist. ii. 1568.
Laurus foliis integris trilobisque. Trew. Ebret.t. 69. Duham. Arb. 1. p. 350. Kalm. Canad. 2. p. 270.

Class Enneandria. Ord. Monogynia. L. Gen. Plant. 503.
Ess. Gen. Ch. Cal. o. Cor. calycina, 6-partita. Nectarium glandulis 3, bisetis, germen cingentibus. Filamenta interiora glandulifera. Drupa 1-sperma.
Spec. Char. L. fol. trilobis integrisque.

The Sassafras tree rises sometimes to the height of twenty or thirty feet, [Vide Marshall's Arbustrum Americanum, p. 75.] and is about twelve or fifteen inches in diameter, but it is commonly of much less growth, and is divided towards the top into several crooked branches: the bark of the young shoots is smooth and green, of the old trunks it is rough, furrowed, and of a light ash-colour: the leaves vary both in form and size, some being oval and entire, others cut into two or three lobes; they are all of a pale-green colour, veined, downy on the under side, and placed alternately upon long footstalks: the flowers are produced in pendent spikes or panicles, which spring from the extremities of the shoots of the preceding year; they appear in May and June, and are generally male and female upon different trees: the corolla is divided into six leaves, which are narrow, convex, and of a dingy yellow colour; the male flowers have nine [Miller says eight, but in the specimen figured, which was procured from a male tree in the King's garden at Kew, nine stamina were observed in all the flowers.] filaments, crowned with round antherae; the bracteae are linear, and placed at the base of the pedicles; there is no calyx, and the berries produced by the female flowers are similar in shape and colour [Marshall, l. c.] to those of the cinnamon. [See plate 27.]

The Sassafras tree is a native of North America, [G. Piso Monardis descriptioni circa lignum Sassafras nan acquiescendum esse ait, siquidem affirmat Sassafras Floridae lignum decorticatum vix ullius dignitatis esse, cum Brasiliense eximiae dignitatis & virtutis habeatur, atque a cortice liberatum in aliquot annos immune servatur." Vide Raii Hist. p. 1569.] and appears to have been cultivated in England sometime before the year 1633, for in Johnson's edition of Gerard, he says, "I have given the figure of a branch taken from a little (Sassafras) tree, which grew in the garden of Mr. Wilmote at Bow." [This account differs from that given by Ray, who says, that — "Tho. Johnsonus in Gerardo suo emaculato: qui Sassafras arbusculae a se visae in horto D. Guliel. Coys Stratfordiae prope Londinum ramulum describit & depingit, &c. Hist. l. c.] It is said that the Sassafras-tree was first discovered by the Spaniards in 1538, when they possessed themselves of Florida; ["It is called cinnamon-wood on account of its smell, which made the Spaniards, when they conquered Florida, in 1538, under Ferdinand de Soto, hope to find that valuable spicery there, which grows only in Ceylon." Savary Dict. ii. 1487.] and the wood was first imported into Spain about the year 1560, where it acquired great reputation for curing various diseases. ["Ligni quoddam genus ex Florida, nunc recens in Hispaniam invehitur, cujus ante paucos annos, notitiam Gallus quidam mihi dedit, ejus facilitates mirum in modum praedicans adversus varios morbos, ut Galli experti erant, ab incolis edocti.—Dicitur Indis Pavame, Gallis, nescio quam ad causam, Sassafras." Monard. Hist. ed anno 1569.] It is now usually imported here in long straight pieces, very light, of a spungy texture, and covered with a rough fungous bark. It has a fragrant smell, and a sweetish aromatic subacrid taste: the root, wood, and bark, agree in their medical qualities, and are all mentioned in the pharmacopoeias; but the bark is the moil fragrant, and thought to be more efficacious than the woody part, and the small branches are preferred to the large pieces. "The virtues of Sassafras are extracted totally by spirit, but not perfectly by water. Distilled with the latter it yields a fragrant essential oil of a penetrating pungent taste, and so ponderous as to sink in water. Rectified spirit extracts the whole taste and smell of Sassafras, and elevates nothing in evaporation; hence the spirituous extract proves the most elegant and efficacious preparation, as containing the whole virtue of the root." Sassafras, according to Bergius, is "sudorifera, diuretica, purificans," and useful in "rheumatism, cutaneous diseases, and ulcers." Lewis says that it is used as a mild corroborant, diaphoretic, and sweetener in scorbutic, venereal, cachectic, and catarrhal disorders. [Lewis, M. M.] Its medical character was formerly held in great estimation, and its sensible qualities, which are stronger than any of the other woods, may have probably contributed to establish the opinion so generally entertained of its utility in many inveterate diseases; for soon after its introduction into Europe, it was sold at a very high price, [Viz. 50 livres per pound.] and its virtues were extolled in publications professedly written on the subject. [See Sassafrasologia, &c. published by J. R. Bremane, 1627.] It is now, however, thought to be of very little importance, and seldom employed, but in conjunction with other medicines of a more powerful nature. Dr. Cullen "found that a watery infusion of it taken warm, and pretty largely, was very effectual in promoting sweat; but (he adds) to what particular purpose this sweating was applicable, I have not been able to determine." [Cullen's M. M. ii. 200.] In some constitutions Sassafras, by its extreme fragrance, is said to produce head-ach; to deprive it of this effect the decoction ought to be employed.

Sassafras is an ingredient in the decoctum sarsaparillae compositum, or decoctum lignorum; but the only officinal preparation of it is the essential oil, which may be given in the dose of two drops to ten. Watery infusions made both from the cortical and woody part, rasped or shaved, are commonly drunk as tea; but the spirituous tincture, or extract, which contains both the volatile and fixed parts of the medicine, appears to be preferable

Medical Botany, 1790-1794, was written by William Woodville, M. D., and illustrated by James Sowerby.