Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) grows to large sizes in Arkansas and Missouri—sometimes 100' tall and 3' to 4' in diameter. But as a smaller tree, even shrub-size in northern reaches, it's found from Massachusetts to Florida and west to Iowa. Because of its light weight and resistance to water, sassafras has been harvested for boats, barrels, and fence posts. But in early colonial days, the unfounded belief that the roots and bark of sassafras contained wonderful curative properties made them chief export items.
In the hills and hollows of the Ozark and Appalachian mountains, though, sassafras still remains a tree of medicinal folklore. Although sassafras' contribution to good health has been proven fictional, the notion persists that a bed crafted of sassafras promotes sound sleep and therefore longer life. That belief may be based upon the wood's odor, and aroma said to drive away bugs. Mountain folk continue to look to sassafras for hen roosts that check chicken lice and cabin floors that discourage spiders and termites. And although little more than a bitter concoction, sassafras tea retains its traditional role as a spring tonic to "purify the blood."
Even without medicinal value, oil of sassafras—distilled from the tree's roots—continues as a common ingredient in many products. As flavoring, it finds its way into medicines and candies. For its aroma, it scents soap and candles. And should you happen to saw, plane, or sand sassafras, the sharp-smelling wood may lead you to wonder if the folklore concerning its wood is not somehow true.