Sassafras Uses in Herbal Medicine and Cooking

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Sassafras's most distinctive trait is its array of bright green leaves, which may have a "mixture" of several shapes: oval, mittenlike, and trilobate.

Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited–in both variety and nutritional value–our “modern” diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs, those plants that–although not well known today–were, just one short generation ago, honored “guests” on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents’ homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER will examine the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our “forgotten” vegetable foods and remedies, and–we hope–help prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.

Winauk, cinnamon wood, ague tree, sassafrax, or saloop: by whatever common name it goes, sassafras (Sassafras officinale, S. albidum, S. variifolium, or Laurus sassafras) is one of the wild treasures of North America. Legend has it that the windborne fragrance of the trees enabled Columbus to persuade his mutinous crew that land was near, and the herb is still one of the spicier delights to be found on a walk in the woods. Western historians have generally attributed the “discovery” of sassafras to the Spaniards exploring Florida, but American Indians from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico had been using the plant for hundreds–possibly thousands–of years before the explorers arrived.

Sassafras as a Medicinal Herb

Sassafras was known primarily as a medicinal herb to the American Indians and, later, to the Europeans, who shipped great quantities to shops in England and on the Continent. The leaves could be made into teas and poultices, while the root bark was either chipped or crushed and then steeped in boiling water–one ounce of bark to one pint of water–and taken in doses of a wineglassful as often as needed to reduce fevers; soothe chronic rheumatism, gout, and dropsy; relieve eye inflammation; ease menstrual and parturition pain; help cure scurvy and various skin conditions; and act as a disinfectant in dental surgery. Because it was thought to be a blood purifier and effective against excess mucus discharge, the plant was even regarded as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea.

The volatile oil of sassafras, which contains safrole, was also used to combat assorted ailments, the usual dosage being from one to five drops in boiled water. More than this small amount of essence could be dangerous: One teaspoon of the pure oil is enough to cause vomiting, dilated pupils, stupor, spontaneous abortion, collapse, and even death! Despite the possibility of adverse effects from overdoses, however, sassafras oil was often employed as a flavoring. In fact, it was used to cover the taste of opium in potions given to many nineteenth-century children to keep them quiet and “well-behaved.”

Sassafras in Cooking

Not all of the versatile plant’s uses are medicinal. The leaves, dried and powdered, are the filé used in Creole cookery to thicken and flavor soups. The dried root bark, steeped to a tea that was served with milk and sugar, made a popular drink called “saloop,” offered at almost every street corner in England up through the early 1900’s. In more recent times, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960 conducted tests on the chemical constituent safrole, which showed that massive amounts fed to rats caused liver cancer in the rodents. This prompted a ban on sales of sassafras tea…although not, it might be remarked, on nutmeg, pepper, star anise, or ordinary China tea, all of which contain the substance. Safrole is practically insoluble in water, however, which may help to account for sassafras tea’s long history of evidently safe use.

Sassafras in Nature

Sassafras may be found as a tree, shrub, or thicket, depending on where it grows. Smooth and orange brown when young, the herb’s bark becomes rough and grayish with age. The plant’s most distinctive identifying trait is its array of bright green leaves–yellow in autumn–which may have a “mixture” of several shapes: oval, mittenlike, and trilobate! The roots are large and woody with rough, spongy bark. The herb is found in dryish, sandy loams alongside roadways and in the borders of woods from Massachusetts to Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas, and south to Florida and Texas. Two good sources of sassafras are Forestfarm and The Naturalists, in Yorktown Heights.

For more helpful guides on how to grow and use herbs, see Grow Sage in Your Herb Garden to Symbolize SuccessGrow Calendula for Your Organic Gardenand The Cooling Borage Herb.