root beer

Collected on this Day in 1933

This specimen isn’t your typical herbarium specimen of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). On November 4, 1933, this piece of sassafras wood was collected by Otto Jennings at Linn Run/Rock Run, about five miles south of Ligonier, Pennsylvania.  

It is unclear what motivated this collection, since Jennings did not normally collect wood like this. Given its bulky size, it is stored separately with the fruit collection in the herbarium.  

Sassafras is a medium-sized deciduous tree, native across eastern North America. It is easily recognized by its uniquely mitten-shaped leaves. The leaves are very aromatic when crushed in your hand, like many other species in the Laurel family (Lauraceae). They also turn a beautiful red in fall. Sassafras has long been used by humans for medicine and food, both by Native Americans and later Europeans.

Ever wonder where the root in root beer comes from?  Root beer was traditionally made from sassafras roots or bark. But, since 1960, sassafras is no longer used in commercially made root beers. The FDA has shown safrole (the aromatic oil in sassafras roots and bark) to cause liver damage and/or cancer in high doses to laboratory animals. Many commercial root beers nowadays use artificial flavors.

Botanists at Carnegie Museum of Natural History share pieces of the herbarium’s historical hidden collection on the dates they were discovered or collected. Check back for more!


“What do you think?”
“It’s vile.”
“I know. It’s so bubbly and cloying and happy.”
“Just like the Federation.”
“But you know what’s really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you begin to like it.”
“It’s insidious.”
“Just like the Federation.”
“Do you think they’ll be able to save us?”
“I hope so.”