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There are three species of Sassafras: S. albidum (from eastern North America), S. tzumu (China) and S. randaiense (Taiwan). All are very similar, and Flanagan’s comment that the best character by which to distinguish them is their country of origin is not inappropriate, although he also provides a key (Flanagan 1998). They are large or medium-sized deciduous trees, which flower in spring as the leaves emerge. Terminal buds are large and covered in silky hairs. The leaves are alternate, papery, and fragrant when crushed; they may be entire (then pinninerved) or two- to three-lobed (then triplinerved). The genus is dioecious, though hermaphrodite flowers occur in S. tzumu. Inflorescences are lax, pendulous terminal racemes with deciduous bracts at the base. The flowers are usually fragrant and have a yellow perianth tube with six lobes. Staminate flowers have nine fertile stamens in three whorls inserted on the throat of the perianth tube; an additional whorl of staminodes is also present in the Asian species. Pistillate flowers have six staminodes (in two whorls) or twelve staminodes (in four whorls). The fruit is a dark blue, ovoid drupe with a shallow cupule at the base (Rohwer 1993a, Liao 1996b, van der Werff 1997, Flanagan 1998, Li et al. 2005).
Sassafras albidum has long been a valuable commodity for the aromatic compounds it contains, used in the manufacture of a range of pharmaceutical and edible products, including the curious beverage sold in North America as root beer. Most such uses are now prohibited as it has been found that the active component, safrole, is a potential carcinogen; it is also an ingredient in the manufacture of the psychoactive drug ‘Ecstasy’ (and others) (Wikipedia 2009). These aromatic properties quickly brought S. albidum to the attention of early colonists in North America, and Bean (1981b) states that it was introduced to Britain in the 1630s. It remains a reasonably familiar species in cultivation, but in cool maritime climates seldom achieves great size. It is noted for its flamboyant autumn colours, but the curiously shaped leaves are of interest at all times. The same characters are also to be found in the Asian species.
Sassafras tzumu was briefly described by Bean (1981b) and was apparently introduced by E.H. Wilson, but its persistence in cultivation was tenuous. For many years the only known individual was a fine old tree attributed to the species at Wakehurst Place, but this blew down in 1987, and as recently as 1998 Mark Flanagan could find no other reference to S. tzumu in cultivation. In the past few years, however, it has become quite widely cultivated, and can now be seen in many collections in our area. Seed obtained from a commercial source in 1990 has resulted in quite large bushy trees at Tregrehan that are very attractive, but most individuals in cultivation are still small. The young foliage flushes pinkish bronze and turns red in autumn. The species seems to be as hardy as S. albidum.
All Sassafras require fertile, acidic or neutral soil and will perform best in warm gardens. Propagation is usually easy from root cuttings (though apparently not so for S. randaiense – see below); or naturally produced root suckers can be detached.
This small genus of deciduous trees demonstrates the affinity between the woody flora of eastern North America, which has one species, and eastern Asia, where there is one species in central China and one in Formosa – all three with the characteristic irregularly lobed foliage. Flowers mostly unisexual and borne on different trees. Inflorescence racemose, from few-scaled buds, developing before the leaves. Flowers without petals. Calyx composed of six segments. Male flowers with nine stamens in three whorls, the innermost each with a pair of glands at the base. Ovary one-celled, developing into a drupe inserted on a fleshy pedestal.
The generic name is probably a corruption of an Indian name for the American species.