Lauraceae, Laurel family
Aromatic, diaphoretic, stimulant and alterative.
I typically gather Sassafras on my grandmothers family farm, where she grew up in the far north east Texas town of Quitman. On that wild piece of land grows little thickets of this beautiful tree among the Sweetgum, Juniper, Oaks and Pine. The sandy soil there makes it an easy root to get to, which easily recovers from mindul and judicious harvesting. Best times to harvest Sassafras roots are in early Spring and in Fall. Leaves are harvested anytime they appear. Typically I harvest a small portion of root from several trees, taking only what I'll need for the year, giving thanks and an offering to the trees I harvest from. It's important not to harvest too much from one tree and to be mindful of clean cuts so as to avoid damaging the roots.
It's always a surprisingly delicious treat for my family and I, even just the smell of this root is heavenly! My grandmother talks about how common it was for folks to drink sassafras tea back in her youth, it was apparently pretty popular back in the day.
Sassafras is a medium, fast growing deciduous tree native to eastern North America. Grows as far south west as north east Texas. An aromatic tree with alternate leaves, three distinctive leaf shapes: entire, mitten shaped, and three lobed. Leaves are green during spring and summer, turning a distinctive reddish orange during fall.
Grows best in well drained, slightly acidic, sandy, loamy soils in open full sun or edge of woodlands. Is readily prolific, roots are lateral, often forming small thickets. Mature tree bark is dark greyish brown and is deeply furrowed. Young shoots are bright yellow green.
Sassafras has fragrant small greenish-yellow bloom clusters in spring and fruit are drupes of a dark blue. Roots and bark smell strongly of root beer- warm, spicy and sweet. Leaves have a light earthy, faintly spicy, citrusy fragrance.
Ecologically, Sassafras is commonly found with other tree species such as Elm (Ulmus spp.), Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), Eastern red cedar or Juniper (Juniperus virginiana), Ash (Fraxinus spp.), Hickory (Carya spp.), Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), American beech (Fagus grandifolia),Yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Oaks (Quercus spp.), Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). In the Appalachian Mountains, it is frequently associated with Red maple (Acer rubrum), Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), and Oaks (Quercus spp).
Sassafras has numerous uses and value to wildlife and humans. Historically all parts of Sassafras have been used by native Americans and have been documented as propagated and used extensively since mid 1500’s by colonists and visitors to eastern north america as well.
The roots make a delicious, aromatic tea known to be used for many purposes, such as heart conditions, as a blood purifier, digestive issues, gallbladder and bladder issues and as a spring tonic. Often used in the old days to flavor less tasty medicines for children.
First used as a ground spice by the Choctaw in the south, from this practice the leaves of Sassafras eventually also became a regular feature in Creole cuisine as a spice called File’, used in the famous dish File’ gumbo. The crushed, powdered leaves are pleasant tasting and often used in soups and stews where it imparts an earthy aromatic flavor and as an excellent thickener to due its mucilaginous properties.
Historically used in perfumery, cuisine and medicine, the wood has also been used in manufacturing canoes due to it’s flexible hardness. The distinctive fragrance of sassafras is pleasant and reminiscent of old time root beer. Both the leaves and root produces a beautiful red tea which quickly thickens upon standing. Most commercially prepared root beer products now must use artificial flavorings, be manufactured to remove the safrole content and use methyl salicylate obtained from Wintergreen or Black birch. Other common spices which contain small amounts of safrole include, nutmeg, black pepper, basil and cinnamon.
This root used to be the main ingredient in root beer and many other food and personal care items and medicines until 1960, when a constituent found within the root bark, safrole, was banned for use in commercially available products by the FDA. This decision was due to researchers forcing high concentrations of safrole into rats, which then sadly ended up with liver damage and various cancers.
It’s unlikely that under normal circumstances a human (or any other animal) would ingest such high concentrations of safrole from consuming sassafras. Although I don't use in commercially available blends due to these concerns, I personally enjoy Sassafras tea quite often.
The constituent Safrole is regulated by the DEA due to its potential use in the manufacture of MDA and MDMA and is also banned for use in soaps and perfume by the International Fragrance Association as well.
Isolated essential oils were analyzed with GC and GC/MS from the root bark extracted at room temperature with hexane and chloroform as solvents. Thirty compounds were identified, nine of which have not been previously reported from this species. The major compounds were safrole (85%), camphor (3.25%), and methyleugenol (1.10%). Ten sesquiterpenes were also identified. (1)