Indian uses of Sassafrass

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a small deciduous tree native to eastern North America with green apetalous flowers and dimorphous leaves.  It grows to roughly 20 feet tall and its wood and bark possess a characteristic sweet smell.  Its leaves can form in three distinct shapes with one, two, or three lobes.  The trilobed leaf is the best known and most common shape.  Smaller trees the size or large shrubs are desired for their roots and leaves, while bigger trees are desired for their timber.

Native Americans used sassafras wood for dugout canoes, and its leaves, roots, and bark as food and medicine. Cherokees gave an infusion of sassafras bark to treat children with worms, used sassafras poultices made from root bark to treat open wounds and sores, and applied sassafras infused water to flush sore eyes.  Chippewas/Ojibwes used the root bark as a blood thinner, and the Choctaw used a decoction of roots to treat the measles. Houmas used the roots to treat scarlet fever, and the Iroquois soaked sassafras roots in whiskey to treat tapeworms.  The Coushatta/Koasatis used a poultice of sassafras to treat bee stings and Rappahannocks used a branch pith decoction to wash burns as well as raw buds to “increase vigor in males.”  The Seminoles used an infusion as mouthwash and as an appetite stimulant. William Strachey described how the Powhatan Indians used sassafras to treat syphilis to “quencheth and mortifieth the malignant poyson of that fowle desease.”

In the late sixteenth century, Englishman Thomas Harriot reported the Algonquian speaking Indians of coastal North Carolina called sassafras winauk, and Scotsman Robert Gordon also claimed the Indians of Nova Scotia called it by the same name. Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes said the Timucua speaking Indians of southern Georgia and northern Florida called it pauame or pavame.

Mark Catesby The Tyrant Bird on a Sprig of Sassafras, Natural History of Carolina vol. 1 (London, 1731), plate 55.


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