Sassafras Oil (Brazilian)
Written by Wagner Azambuja
The Brazilian Sassafras (Ocotea odorifera / Ocotea cymbarum) is a perennial aromatic tree originally from Rio Grande do Sul up to Bahia in the Atlantic rainforest and the fields of Southeast and meridional altitude (pine forest). It is also called “canela cheirosa”, it can reach up to 20 meters high, presenting a global and dense canopy (umbrella like) and tortuous corrugated trunk from 40 to 70 cm diameter. It has brilliant, coriaceous leaves from 7 to 14 cm long and terminal panicle inflorescence, formed by white-yellowish small flowers, which are hermaphrodite and scented. Its fruit is smooth drupe elliptical around 2,5 cm long, with thin pulp involved up to the middle by a fleshy receptacle with an only seed in the same shape.
According to the work “Os Óleos Essenciais do Brasil (Brazilian Essential Oils)” published in 1971 by the economist Helson C. Braga, in the past there used to be a distinction between three varieties of sassafras both by the color of the wood and by the oil content: the black one (1,5% oil), the brown one (1,2% oil) and the yellow one (0,9% oil). Anyway, the essential oil is a yellow or yellow-reddish oil which becomes darker and thicker with time. When badly preserved, in contact with air and light, it oxidizes and becomes even darker and thicker. However, its density is never altered, even at high temperatures, that is the reason why this oil has been used as a component in the fabrication of fuel to spacecrafts. It presents strong and pleasant aroma and pungent and aromatic flavor which reminds its origins, and its main constituent is safrole, which represents up to 95% of its composition, besides other elements such as alpha-pinene, eugenol, cineol, furfural, benzaldehyde, n-valeraldehyde and others. It is also known as anti-septic and anti-rheumatic, presenting several industrial applications.
It is also important to emphasize that only the “canela de sassafras” trees from Santa Catarina (Brazil) and region present a safrole rich oil. Other trees, as the ones found in Minas Gerais (Brazil too), produce a different oil, rich in methyleugenol. Another difference for the Santa Catarina oil is in the fragrance, as the Minas oil presents 1-nitro-2fenylethane in its composition, such element gives this oil a cinnamon like scent. This was the firs report of a nitrated substance in an essential oil, although synthetic nitro-derived were already used in the perfume industry since the end of the XIX century.
The first Brazilian distillation of sassafras essential oil was in 1928, as an experiment in the Santa Catarina State (Itajaí Valley). Soon after, with the increase in importation costs due to the First World War, the production of this oil grew sharply in Brazil. In 1942 the production reached 40 tons, and increased to 2500 tons in 1970. After 1975, however, the extraction activity started to decrease, with reflexes in the production and exportation levels due to the lack of reforestation of areas initially exploited and the lack of culture management. Thus, this tree was included in the list of endangered species and its exploitation started to be controlled.
(*) with the aim to preserve this species, the Decree 2221 from 04th February 1977 created the Sassafras State Biological Reserve in the cities of Doutor Pedrinho and Benedito Novo in the State of Santa Catarina (Brazil). This reserve is divided into two separated areas, Bigger Gleba and Smaller Gleba and covers approximately 5229 ha that shelter several of these trees. In 1994, an area of around 8 ha was joined to REBES by the State Decree 4847, which was donated to FATMA through public register of Donation duly registered in the Registry Office.
(*) several authors mention the existence of a Decree forbidding the cutting of Ocotea odorifera, the Decree 1.557 published in the “Diário Oficial da União” on 25th September 1991. However, although several searches have been made, including the Federal Senate law basis, such Decree was not found.
Historical documentary produced by Mr. José Azambuja about the decline of the sassafras oil in Brazil. Filmed by Mr. Azambuja during one of his several visits to Santa Catarina distilleries in the 80s, this short part illustrates the detail of the sad scenery experienced by the old producers, who, years later abandoned the activity. The original video, which is a classic, was recorded in VHS and is over 2 hours long, it is according to Mr. Azambuja carefully kept.
Between the 40s and 70s Brazil was the biggest producer and exporter of sassafras oil to the world.
Below photos of some of the sassafras distilleries in the 80s, which belong to the QUINARÍ private collection.
Amongst the former distilleries are:
GADENS, in Campo Largo/PR – CASSAVA in Rio do Sul/SC – BERRI in Timbó/SC – SUBIDA in Apiúna/SC – LUBERTINA, in Apiúna/SC – MARCHETTI in Timbó/SC – REALFRÁS in Campina Grande/PR – VALIMA in Rio do Sul/SC – FERNANDES in Itaiópolis/SC – SOTER in Papanduva/SC and SAFROBRÁS in Canoinhas/SC.
As it was said before, the main component of the sassafras essential oil is safrole, a volatile phenyl-ether. This compound is used by the industry as raw material to manufacture heliotropine (fragrance fixer) and piperonyl butoxide (a synergistic agent in natural piretrum based insect and pest killers). The reification process of sassafras essential oil to obtain heliotropine is based on isomerization of the derived propenyl, the iso-safrole, through heating with alcoholic potash, which is then oxidized. From this process, the aldehyde 3,4-methylenedioxi-benzaldehyde or piperonal, best known as heliotropine, results through partial destruction of the lateral chain.
(*) from 1990 to 1995 Japan was the receiver of 95% of the Brazilian sassafras oil exportation.
(*) nowadays the great safrol producers are China and Vietnam, which use the same destructive methods that were employed in Brazil.
Sassafras is a relative of cinnamon, laurel and walnut. Its oil, with applications in perfumery and the manufacture of insecticides, has an important characteristic: its density never changes, even at high temperature variations. This stability is vital for precision instruments and has been widely used in aircraft and even spaceships. Its cultivation is not popular because sassafras grows very slowly and rarely bears fruit; therefore, nobody wants to grow it.