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sassafras-msg – 10/30/05


Use of the New World plant sassafras in Europe prior to 1600 CE.


NOTE: See also the files: infusions-msg, wood-msg, p-medicine-msg, fd-New-World-msg, maize-msg, p-herbals-msg, herbs-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: brendt.hess at nwcs.org (Brendt Hess)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: sassafras

Date: Sat, 18 Mar 1995 17:41:00 GMT

Organization: NWCS Online * Oregon USA


On the question of sassafras and root beer being period, I came across

an interesting citation in an unexpected source indicating that it is.


In this month's _Discover_ magazine, in the article on the decline of

the Cod fishery on the Atlantic coast, it is mentioned that the fishery

off of Cape Cod was discovered in 1603 by a ship that was hunting for

sassafras.  Seems that it was popular as a cure for syphilis.


Now, whether or not root beer was period is a different question, but if

expeditions were hunting for sassafras in 1603, I would be willing to

believe that the use of the plant was already fairly widespread.


M. Vergilius



Date: Tue, 09 Jun 1998 08:37:00 -0500

From: "Norman White" <gn-white at tamu.edu>

Subject: Re: SC - Alternative Drinks -Reply


Jin Liu Ch'ang here:


Cariodoc/David worte

>According to my dictionary, there are two varieties of sassafras tree,

>one from North American and one from China. What is the evidence

>that something made from one of them was drunk in period?


Sassafras is new world but it is an herb which was quickly taken up by Europeans possibly due to their foreknowledge of the plant because of its close Chinese relative.   It should be noted, however, that the plant is mostly mentioned for its medicinal properties rather than its use as a beverage.


The one period document that I have on my book shelves which mentions sassafras is Harriot (1590 edition) which has in the chapter listing merchantable commodities a section entitled "Sassafras" which states:

" Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kinde of wood of most pleasand and sweete smel; and of most rare vertues in phisick for the cure of many diseases.  It is found by experience to bee farre better and of more uses then the wood which is called Guaiacum, or Lignu vitae. For the description of using and the manifolde vertues thereof, I referre you to the book of Monardus, translated and entituled in English, The ioyfull newes from the West Indies."

My memory (meaning I can not find my copy of the book I believe was called Richard Hakluyt's "Principal navigations") is that the other reports of the area now called eastern North Carolina describe the explorers eating the leaves in a soup in a manner much as the cajuns use it as filet but only because they were starving.  In any case the plant was well known to the explorers prior to their coming to the new world and apparently already of commercial importance otherwise they would not have mentioned it so prominently in the book.


It is also used in one mead recipe in Kenelme Digbie (1669).

Other mentions of its importance in the time period close to 1600 are:


M. Grieve (1931) states "The name 'Sassafras', applied by the Spanish botanist Monardes in the 16th century, is said to be a corruption of the Spanish word for saxifrage."  Later she states "The tree, which has berries like those of cinnamon, appears to have been cultivated in England some centuries ago, for in 1633 Johnston wrote:'I have given the figure of a branch taken from a little sassafras tree which grew in the garden of Mr. Wilmot at Bon.'  Probably it was discovered by the Spaniards in Florida, for seventy years earlier there is mention of the reputation of its roots in Spain as a cure for syphilis, rheumatism, etc., though its efficacy has since been much disputed."


Hylton (1974) wrote that "Columbus is said to have sensed the nearness of land from the strong smell of sassafras.  Its formal discovery is generally attributed to the Spaniards exploring Florida.  The tree and tales of its values learned from Indians were carried to Europe. Ultimately, sassafras became one of the first commercial exports from the new land."


Grieve, M. 1931. A modern herbal .... Dover Publications, Inc., New York.


Harriot, Thomas. 1590. A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia.


Hylton, W. H. (ed.). 1974. The Rodale herb book. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.


Jin Liu Ch'ang

a.k.a. Norman White

email: gn-white at tamu.edu



Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 06:28:20 -0400

From: "Nancy Kiel" <nancy_kiel at hotmail.com>

Subject: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Question -Sassafras

To: "Cooks within the SCA" <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


Sassafras might not be OOP---when they settled Jamestown in 1607,  

sassafras was one of the things they were looking for, which implies  

there was already a market for it.  I believe it was used medicinally.


Nancy Kiel



Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 09:39:59 -0400

From: "Jeff Gedney" <gedney1 at iconn.net>

Subject: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Question -Sassafras

To: Cooks within the SCA <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


> Sassafras might not be OOP---when they settled Jamestown in 1607,

> sassafras was one of the things they were looking for, which

> implies there was already a market for it.  I believe it was used

> medicinally.


Sassafras wood was frequently exported to England for furniture and  

barrel making.


The Jamestown narratives mention that the local Indians ate a"pottage"  

made from powdered sassafras leaves... in other words: file (fee-lay)...  

Perhaps the first record of file gumbo?


It's qualities for settling an upset stomach was well noted.

So it did have a medicinal value.

But IIRC, the wood itself was the chief export of this species.

The medicinal byproducts, leaves and root bark were exported, but in  

significantly smaller quantities (this is all recollection, I don't have my resources to hand and I may be completely mistaken, but I am  

confident in my knowledge of the use of the wood in furniture.


Capt Elias

Dragonship Haven, East

(Stratford, CT, USA)



Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 09:56:17 -0400

From: Johnna Holloway <johnna at sitka.engin.umich.edu>

Subject: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Queston -Sassafras

To: Cooks within the SCA <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


http://www.foodreference.com/html/artsassafras.html has something

about it history and mentions it's been banned.



carries more about the ban.


Sassafras ---Contains safrole, a carcinogen. Safrole is not permitted in licensed medicinesand it is controlled in food additives.

The oil should never be taken internally as it can cause

liver and kidney damage. Aromatic sassafras tea,

once popular as a stimulant and blood thinner and as

a reputed cure for rheumatism causes cancer in rats when taken in large amounts. Oil of sassafras and safrole, major chemical components

of the aromatic oil in sassafras root bark,

were taken out of root beer more than 30 years ago.

And sassafras bark was banned from use in all food.




John Frampton's immensely popular 1596 translation of Spanish botanist

Nicolas Monardes' work, titled in English Joyfull newes out of the

new-found world, reported of sassafras that among Spanish soldiers“ it

did in them great effectes, that it is almost incredible: for with the

naughtiye [rotten] meates and drinkyng of the rawe waters, and sleeping

in the dewes, the moste parte of them came to fall in cuntinuall Auges







Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 14:10:01 -0500

From: "Terry Decker" <t.d.decker at worldnet.att.net>

Subject: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Question -Sassafras

To: "Cooks within the SCA" <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


Sassafras  was certainly known in the latter half of the 16th Century.


A reference to sassafras appears in Thomas Hariot's "A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" (1588), which was meant to recruit people to the Roanoke Colony.


"Sassafras. The inhabitants call it winauk, a wood of the most pleasant

and sweet smell and of rare virtues in medicine for the cure of many

diseases. It is far better and has more uses than the wood which is called Guaiacum, or lignum vitae. For the description, manner of using, and manifold virtues of it, I refer you to the book of Monardus, translated and entitled in English, The Joyful News from the West Indies."


I believe the text entitled "The Joyful News from the West Indies" is an English version of Monardes, Historia Medicinal, 1574.





Date: Tue, 19 Jul 2005 07:28:34 -0500

From: "Terry Decker" <t.d.decker at worldnet.att.net>

Subject: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Question -Sassafras

To: "Cooks within the SCA" <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>



I'd be interested in seeing more details of this. If I'm correct,

sassafras is a New World plant, and except for possibly Florida, I don't think it grows where the Spanish and Portuguese were. So where would it have come from to get to Europe to develop a market before the English New World colonies? Bear, do you have more info on this, such as the native range of sassafras?





The native range of sassafras is roughly that of the Eastern hardwood

forest, from the Canadian border into northern Florida forming a roughly V

shape region across the midwest and south with the point in eastern

Oklahoma.  The westernmost extent of the Eastern hardwood forest can be

found at what used to be Platt National Park in Sulphur, OK.


The Spanish landed 1,500 colonists in the Pensacola area in 1559, who moved

to Port Royal Sound (later part of the English colony of South Carolina) due

to hostilities with the native tribes.  This is in the southernmost extent

of Sassafras albidum and 15 years prior to the initial publication of

Historia Medical. I haven't chased the actual publication history of

sassafras, but I would suspect this colony is the beginning of the European

use of the plant.  Until somebody checks, take this as speculation.





Date: Tue, 19 Jul 2005 08:39:55 -0500 (CDT)

From: Ron Carnegie <r.carnegie at verizon.net>

Subject: Re: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Question -Sassafras

To: Cooks within the SCA <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


Here is what the online OED has to say about sassafras.


  1. a. A small tree, Sassafras officinale (N.O. Laurine?), also called  

Sassafras Laurel and Ague-tree, with green apetalous flowers and  

dimorphous leaves, native in North America, where it is said to have  

been discovered by the Spaniards in 1528.


   The name is frequently applied (chiefly with defining word) to trees  

of other genera which have similar medicinal properties; e.g.Australian  

or Tasmanian sassafras (Atherosperma moschata), see PLUME-NUTMEG;  

Brazilian sassafras (Nectandra Puchury), see PICHURIM; Cayenne  

sassafras (Laurelia sempervirens); oriental sassafras (Sassafras  

Parthenoxylon); swamp sassafras (Magnolia glauca).


   1577 FRAMPTON Joyfull Newes II. 46 Of the Tree that is brought from

the Florida, whiche is called Sassafras. 1597 GERARDE Herbal III.  

cxxxvi. 1341 The roote of Sassafras hath power to comfort the liuer.  

1622 CAPT. SMITH New Eng. Trials 260 About three hogsheads of Beuer  

skins and some Saxefras. 1641 R. EVELIN in Descr. New Albion (1648) 21

There are Cedars, Cypresse, and Sassafras. 1666 J. DAVIES Hist. Caribby  

Isles 47 They afford Sandal-wood, Guiacum, and Sasafras, all of which

are so well known. 1684 PENN Let. in Academy 11 Jan. (1896) 36/3 The  

trees that grow here are the Mulberry,..chesnut, Ash, Sarsafrax. 1726

G. SHELVOCKE Voy. round World (1757) 54 The sassafras, so much esteemed  

in Europe. 1745 P. THOMAS Jrnl. Anson's Voy. 12 Sassafrass is here in

great Plenty. 1817-18 COBBETT Resid. U.S. (1822) 5 The Sassafras in  

flower, or, whatever else it is called. It resembles the Elder flower a  

good deal. 1856 BRYANT Ind. Story x, And there hangs on the sassafras,

broken and bent, One tress of the well known hair. 1887 T. N. PAGE Ole Virginia,  

etc. (1893) 140 An old field all grown up in sassafras.


     b. The wood or timber of this tree.


   1728 Rec. Early Hist. Boston (1883) VIII. 222 No Popler,..Sassifax,

Black ash, Basswood, or Ceder Shall be Corded up. 1900 19th Ann. Rep.

U.S. Bureau Amer. Ethnol. 1897-98 I. 422 Sassafras is tabued as fuel  

among the Cherokee..perhaps for the practical reason that it is apt to

pop out of the fire when heated. 1921 C. C. DEAM Trees of Indiana 165

Floors were made of sassafras to keep out the rats and mice.


     2. a. The dried bark of this tree, used medicinally as an  

alterative; also an infusion of this.


   1577 FRAMPTON Joyfull Newes II. 50 Many of them that had Tertians did  

take Water of the Sassafras. 1605 B. JONSON Volpone II. ii, No Indian

drug had ere beene famed, Tabacco, Sassafras not named. 1714 Fr. Bk. of  

Rates 96 Sax-a-fras per 100 Weight, 05 00. 1822 LAMB Elia Ser. I.  

Praise Chimney-Sweepers, A composition, the groundwork of which I have

understood to be the sweet wood yclept sassafras. 1837 R. ELLIS Laws &  

Regul. Customs III. 405 Sassafras, is the bark of the Lauris Sassafras.  

1863 Rio Abajo Weekly Press (Albuquerque, New Mexico) 14 Apr. 2/3  

Sassafras.Those who use this drink will find [etc.]. 1871 E. EGGLESTON

Hoosier Schoolmaster 88 He drank his glass of water, having declined  

even her sassafras. 1912 M. NICHOLSON Hoosier Chron. 44 Sassafras in  

the spring, and a few doses of quinine in the fall,..were all the  

medicine that any good Hoosier needed.


     b. oil of sassafras = sassafras oil (see 3).


   1753 CHAMBERS Cycl. Supp. s.v. Oil, The oil of sassafras is  

peculiarly liable to crystallization in certain circumstances. 1838 T.

THOMSON Chem. Org. Bodies 479 Oil of Sassafras is obtained from the  

root of the laurus sassafras.


     3. Comb., as sassafras-bark, -bush, -chips, -pith, -root, -tree,

-wood; sassafras laurel = sense 1; sassafras nut (see PICHURIM);  

sassafras oil, an oil distilled from the root of the common sassafras,

from the bark of the Tasmanian sassafras, or from the sassafras nut;  

sassafras soap U.S., a soap scented with sassafras; sassafras tea, an

infusion of sassafras formerly used in making saloop.


    1681 GREW Mus?um II. I. i. 180 Being well chewed, it hath the self

same Tast with that of *Sassafras-Barque.



1607 in 3rd Rep. Hist. MSS. Comm. 53/2 Our easiest and richest  

commodity being *sassafras roots, were gathered up by the sailors. 1875  

T. W. HIGGINSON Hist. U.S. vii. 51 Gosnold went back to England with a

cargo of sassafras-root.


1597 GERARDE Herbal III. cxxxvi. 1341 The *Sassafras tree. 1864-5 WOOD

Homes without H. xiv. (1868) 3 The insect called Saturnia promethea,  

which lives on the Sassafras-tree.



Date: Tue, 19 Jul 2005 23:40:25 -0500

From: "Terry Decker" <t.d.decker at worldnet.att.net>

Subject: Re: Re: [Sca-cooks] OOP Question -Sassafras

To: <r.carnegie at verizon.net>, "Cooks within the SCA"

      <sca-cooks at ansteorra.org>


1528 would probably be the failed expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez into

western Florida.




> 1. a. A small tree, Sassafras officinale (N.O. Laurine?), also called

> Sassafras Laurel and Ague-tree, with green apetalous flowers and

> dimorphous leaves, native in North America, where it is said to have  

> been discovered by the Spaniards in 1528.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org