>> Monday, March 9, 2009

A springtime “ritual” as I was growing up was to dig sassafras roots and make sassafras tea.  I remember I dug roots, cut them into small pieces and sold them to earn a few dollars.  Recently I was visiting with a cousin on the telephone and we got to talking about sassafras.  He also remembered digging sassafras roots and he also sold them.  He said that he no longer had any sassafras trees on his small acreage but would enjoy having some sassafras roots to make some sassafras tea.  So, yesterday afternoon I walked down the hill and located a sassafras tree and dug a root for him.

Mar      8th 001Here is a photo of the root I dug for him sitting on our kitchen table.

For those who are unfamiliar with sassafras it is a tree of the Laurel family.  It is found from small bush size to a height of 50 to 60 feet.  It has many slender branches and the hairless leaves can be of three different types (a smooth oval, a two lobed and a three lobed leaf) sometimes all three being found on the same tree.

sass_08  The bark of the roots, formerly one of the ingredients in root beer, contains volatile oils, 80% of which is safrole.  The FDA banned its use as an additive in 1960, as safrole was found to cause liver cancer in rats.  The root bark extract and leaves are now treated commercially to produce a safrole-free product.  It isn’t possible to make a safrole free extract at home.

The root bark has long been used medicinally by native Americans, and this knowledge was passed on to early settlers.  Sassafras was one of the earliest American plant drugs to reach Europe, having been used medicinally in Spain as early as the middle 1500’s.  The early settlers also fermented the roots with molasses to make beer.  During the Civil War sassafras tea became quite popular. 

The Choctaw Indians first used the dried ground leaves as a seasoning and thickener, and today the dried leaves are used to make file’ powder which is used to thicken and flavor soups and stews in Creole cooking.  You may remember the words to the old song “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file’ gumbo.”  What is referred to is this file’ (pronounced Fee-Lay).  It is said to impart a delicate flavor somewhat similar to that of thyme.  A spoonful or so thickens stock into the kind of rich gravy that genuine gumbo must have.  One source states that it is a sin to eat gumbo made without file’.

If you are able to obtain fresh sassafras roots here is the way to make sassafras tea.  Cut the root into small pieces and put 5 or 6 into a pot of water.  Bring the water to a boil and keep it there for only 10 minutes.  Then, cover the pot and let it stand for 3 or 4 hours.  After this “sit” the tea is ready to drink.  We reused the roots 2 or 3 times before throwing them out.  The tea can be drunk as it is brewed or with sweetening and/or cream (or milk).  Sassafras tea  is renowned as a Spring tonic and blood purifier as well as a household cure for a wide range of ailments such as gastrointestinal complaints, colds, kidney ailments, rheumatism and skin eruptions.


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