By Rita Bober
Sassafras trees are one of the wild edible plants that many people already know about. It is one of the easiest trees to identify. My husband, Norm, likes to call it the "mitten" tree because one of its leaves looks like a mitten. Sassafras is a medium-sized tree with irregularly furrowed, red-brown bark. The leaves come in three different shapes, one is oval, one has two lobes (like a mitten), and one has three lobes. All the leaves are 3 to 5 inches long and have a pleasant fragrance. In the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful orange-yellow-red. The tree reproduces itself prodigiously by runners as it tries to compete with taller trees in a maturing forest. Some of the immature saplings can be uprooted and used for food and medicine.
Sassafras leaves can be harvested from spring to fall, while the twigs and roots are good all year. All parts of the tree make a reddish-brown herb tea though the root will make the strongest tea. For medicinal use, the root is best. Scrape off the outer bark and use the inner bark. It is best to simmer rather than steep the root, leaves, or twigs. Wash the soil off the part that you are using before simmering for 20 minutes in a covered pot. When finished, strain and serve. Many people love to make root beer by adding seltzer water and sweetener to the tea. You can also grind the dried inner bark in a spice grinder or blender and use as a substitute for cinnamon. Dry sassafras leaves can be ground into a powder called gumbo filé. It can be used to flavor and slightly thicken soup. Southerners often use gumbo filé — when you have enough soup to serve six, turn off the heat and stir in half a cup of this expensive gourmet item.
Native Peoples used sassafras as a blood purifier or alterative (cleansing the whole body) which helps specifically for a variety of skin diseases such as acne, burns, skin infections and poison ivy rash. It can be useful for eczema and psoriasis and it is especially good as a spring tonic. Herbalists also suggest that sassafras is good for rheumatism, gout, and arthritis as well as treating colds and fevers. The plant has disinfectant action so it would be good as a mouthwash. In addition, it can be used to combat head lice and other body infestations.
To prepare the tea, pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-2 teaspoons of the dried herb and leave it to infuse for 15 to 20 minutes. If using fresh parts, place 1 tablespoon in the pot before adding the hot water. Drink a cup three times a day. It can also be made into a tincture.
There has been some concern about the carcinogenic properties of safrole which is found in small concentrations in sassafras root bark. Research scientists isolate the element safrole in their research with rats. If the element is isolated, its concentrated quality could be harmful. However, other research indicated that using the whole root does not yield the same concentration of safrole. Rats used in research convert safrole into a carcinogen but humans do not according to "Wildman" Steve Brill. The safrole found in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer. Safrole is also found in many common foods and spices including sweet basil, nutmeg and black pepper. Used in moderation, many people have enjoyed sassafras products for thousands of years with no ill effects.
Head out to the woods and collect some roots before the ground freezes. Both leaves and root bark can be dried and stored through the winter. It will be hard to get the roots out once the ground is frozen. If that happens, you could use twigs and dried leaves. I've used the leaves and roots myself but not the twigs. I'll have to get Norm out to our patch of sassafras to get root bark to dry for future use. See you in the sassafras!
Published in the Michigan Land Trustees Newsletter, Fall, 2010