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small flowering tree of North America, 1570s, from Spanish sasafras, perhaps an adaptation of saxifraga "saxifrage," from Late Latin saxifragia, variant of saxifraga (see saxifrage). But the connection of the plants is difficult to explain, and the word perhaps represents a lost Native American name that sounded like Spanish saxifraga and was altered to conform to it. The tree supposedly was discovered by the Spanish in 1528.