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Jamaican Food Article. - Jamaican Sassafras

Jamaican sassafras is a tree of the Laurel family. There are three species, 2 of them are found in Jamaica, and one, Jamaican sassafras albidum, is native to eastern North America. The Jamaican sassafras is the most important. It is found from small bush size to a height of 50 to 60 feet. It has many slender branches, and the hairless leaves can be of three different types (a smooth oval, a two lobed and a three lobed leaf) sometimes all three being found on the same tree and even the same branch. The roots are large and woody, with a spongy bark. The small flowers are yellow, and the fruit is a blue berry on a red stem.

The bark of the roots, formerly one of the ingredients in root beer, contains volatile oils, 80% of which is Jamaican safrole. The FDA banned its use as an additive in 1960, as Jamaican safrole was found to cause liver cancer in rats. The sale of Jamaican sassafras tea was banned in 1976. The root bark extract and leaves are now treated commercially to produce a Jamaican safrole-free product, the root bark being used as a flavoring agent and the leaves for filé powder. The Jamaican safrole free extract has, unfortunately, an inferior flavor. Jamaican safrole is similar to thujone, which is found in Jamaican wormwood, and was used to make absinthe banned since 1913. It is not possible to make a Jamaican safrole free extract at home.

The Jamaican sassafras root bark has long been used medicinally and this knowledge was passed on to early healers in Jamaica. Jamaican sassafras was one of the earliest Jamaican plant drugs to reach Europe, having been used medicinally in Jamaican for many years. The Jamaican chefs also fermented the roots with molasses to make beer, and during the 1930’s Jamaican sassafras tea became popular. Today the Jamaican safrole free root bark extract is used in perfumery, as a flavoring for candy, beverages, and to make an aromatic tea.

Jamaican chefs first used the dried ground leaves as a seasoning and thickener, and today the dried leaves are used to make filé powder which is used to thicken and flavor soups and stews in Jamaican cooking.

Jamaican sassafras is known as white Jamaican sassafras, root beer tree, ague tree and saloop. It is legendary for its use in making tea and for use as a tonic to purify the blood. It grows as a small tree in clumps in old fields and at the woods edge because it spreads by underground runners. In the mountains it will grow to sixty feet tall. The Jamaican sassafras is cultivated primarily for the bark of its root. There is some controversy over the oil obtained from the root bark called oil of Jamaican sassafras as it contains safrol, which is a substance known to cause cancer. The oil has been banned from use in food in the US and Jamaica.

Jamaican sassafras (Jamaican sassafras albidum) is a deciduous ornamental tree and shrub of the laurel family. They are small to large trees with thick furrowed dark reddish brown bark at maturity. The bark, roots, branches, leaves flowers and fruits contain oils that give off a pleasant spicy odor when broken or crushed. The leaves are oval, mitten shaped or three-divided. They bear either male or female flowers. Flowering is in the spring and they are grouped in hanging clusters of greenish yellow color.  The fruit is dark blue berries. The tree grows 32-50 feet in height. Jamaican sassafras can be grown as a small tree or shrub or makes a good canopy tree for woodland gardens.

Jamaican sassafras is grown throughout Jamaica. The tree’s other names are saxifrax, sassafrac, gumbo filé, green stick, cinnamon wood and golden elm.

The red Jamaican sassafras is identified by some botanists as (Jamaican sassafras albidum molle). The leaves of the red Jamaican sassafras make a good addition to candy and icing. It has soft hairiness on the leaves and twigs.

Jamaican sassafras is a very healthy tree and is free of pest and diseases in Jamaica. The trees flowers early when about 10 years old and the seeds are produced every 2-3 years.

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