One of the things I loved most about trips to the woods with my parents when I was a child was knowing we might just come back with some sassafras root. The leaves were easy for me to identify – smooth and fragrant, some even shaped like Michigan! But the tea that we were able to make from the roots was the best of all! I had no idea back then that the beloved tea also had medicinal properties. For me, it just meant ending a wonderful outdoor adventure with a warm cup of tea that I helped make.
Found: Poor soils, wooded areas from Canada to Mexico.
Identifying: Trees 10 – 100 feet tall with smooth, broadly oval leaves, 3 – 7 inches long. Leaves have three shapes – oval, mitten, or three-lobed. The leaves are very fragrant when crushed. Bark is smooth, orange-brown
Parts Used: Leaves, twig pith, root bark
Medicinal Use: Root-bark tea started as a Native American blood tonic and “purifier” that was once very popular in the spring. Settlers to America quickly took on the yearly tradition as well. Good for stomachaches, gout, arthritis. kidney ailments, colds and fevers, bronchitis, skin eruptions, dry skin, poison ivy, high blood pressure, rheumatism. Twig pith is mucilaginous and has been used for eye ailments when prepared as a wash or poultice. As a tea is also good for chest, liver, kidney, and bowel ailments. Leaves are also mucilaginous and was once a common treatment for stomachaches. Also a great insect repellant. The tea thins the blood and is an important Native American fever remedy. It opens the skin’s pores and releases perspiration. On a hot summer’s day it helps cool. The root bark is often used to help prevent strokes and heart attack. Brings circulation to the brain, hence encouraging clear thinking. Also good for bringing circulation into the joints and helping to relieve arthritis. As a poultice, it aids in healing bruises. Good for depression and melancholy, postpartum depression, afterbirth pains.
Preparation: Leaves can be dried and used for tea. Root bark can be dried for tea as well. When I was a child, we simply collected a few of the abundant saplings and shoots, and scrubbed and used the entire root. When a tornado ripped up a large sassafras tree in the neighborhood, I helped my dad collect armloads of the tree’s roots, which we scrubbed and actually froze in large bundles. We weren’t sure how it would turn out, but the root lasted several years afterwards! Perhaps we should have chopped and dried it, but we didn’t know to try it. I can tell you the fresh-frozen root made wonderful tea! To prepare it, one should let it soak in hot water but not boil the root. (We used to boil it, and it tasted wonderful – alas, some of the medicinal properties are lost through boiling.)
Allergic Reactions/Warnings: The oil of sassafras contains safrole, which is banned by the FDA because it is carcinogenic. Interestingly, the amount of safrole found in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is less carcinogenic than the alcohol found in a can of beer! On its own, safrole is definitely carcinogenic. But people who drink the tea for many years have been found to have a reduced incidence of cancer. Still, many herbalists recommend using sassafras with caution. Also, if you are taking blood thinners you should not use sassafras, as it is a very effective blood thinner on its own.
Note: These posts are not meant to be a medical guide but an overview. Consulting an herbal specialist is always recommended.
Interesting anecdote/recipe that may just be highly recommended: The blog Southern Angel shares her granny’s Quarreling Recipe. It requires one to boil a sassafras root in a quart of water for 20 – 30 minutes. Store it in a bottle, and when your husband “comes home to quarrel, fill your mouth full and hold until he goes away.” Her granny called it a sure cure!