by John Wenzel
The flavoring of our popular root beer comes from the roots of sassafras, a common tree in open areas or at forest edges. Trees are either male or female, with the females producing interesting and attractive fruits in late August at our location.
As is typical of members of the Laurel family, the leaves and twigs have a pleasant odor when crushed. The spice we call bay laurel is a relative of sassafras, and other relatives include our local spicebush and in the tropics avocados and cinnamon.
The leaves may be used in some Louisiana Creole cooking such as gumbo. The leaves are unusual in that the same tree may have simple leaves, or leaves with two lobes that resemble a mitten, or leaves with three lobes.
Sassafras is a traditional medicinal plant, and its oils were used in dentistry as both an anesthetic and disinfectant, although they are now banned in the USA due to carcinogenic properties. The tree is one of the main hosts of the attractive spicebush swallowtail butterfly, which was one of the first insects described from the New World by Linnaeus in 1758.
John Wenzel is the Director at Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s environmental research center. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.