May 3, 2011
Sassafras: An Early History
Sassafras albidum is its generic name. It is generally ascribed to a Spanish rendering of the name for the saxifrage, a plant normally found in rock crevices (saxum is Latin for a 'rock' and frangere is Latin for 'break in pieces'). However, there is not any logical connection between the saxifrage and the sassafras. It is more likely that sassafras is from a Native American name for the plant that sounded like saxifrage. The species name albidum is the Latin word for 'white.'
Sassafras is integral to the early colonization and exploration of North America. At one time this tree created more interest in the old world than did any other product in America, even tobacco. Its early history is truly extraordinary. In 1512, Ponce de Leon and his crewmen were looking up and down the Florida coast searching for the "Fountain of Youth." What they found was sassafras, which was thought to be an even better discovery. Before any other product had made an impression on European medicine, ships were dispatched to the new land for the sole purpose of collecting sassafras.
The history of sassafras is that of a “New Remedy” thought to have absolutely remarkable traits. “Its way to Europe was marked by the blood of French and Spanish explorers. Linked with the birth of sassafras are to be found the names of the men who struggled for mastery in Florida. From the landing of Ponce de Leon in 1512 to the expedition of De Soto in 1538, throughout the struggles of the French Huguenots under Jean Ribault and René Laudonnière, until finally the sad ending of that French colony was accomplished by the cruel Spanish general, Pedro Melendez, the drama closing in the revenge on the Spanish by the French nobleman, Dominic de Gourgues, sassafras served its part as a remedy sought alike by all.” (Lloyd 26) (This is a reference to the attack of the Spanish at St. Augustine, Florida, upon the French Huguenot...