This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Sassafras albidium, or Sassafras. Out of all the hundreds of obscure edible and medicinal plants in the Eastern Woodlands that people can’t remember, sassafras stands out. Most people seem to at least be aware of sassafras, whether or not they know what it’s good for. Maybe it’s the name that sticks in people’s minds… it is kind of fun to say, especially if you’re a kid. More likely, it’s the memories. If you grew up around here, there’s a strong chance you heard an old-timer, maybe a grandparent, talk about drinking sassafras tea. Maybe you even went with them to dig roots, and the heady, sweet-spicy scent of the safrole oils mixed with clods of Southern earth stuck itself in your brain and is triggered every time you pick a leaf. Or maybe that’s just me. On the other side of the spectrum, it’s been the subject of a great deal of controversy and consternation, and even spent a short time as a controlled substance. Either way, sassafras has a way of being remembered.
Sassafras is a slow-growing tree in the Laurel family that usually presents itself as a medium sized shrub growing in thickets 6’-12’ tall or as a small understory tree 30’-50’ tall. However, it can get much larger. The world record sassafras tree resides in downtown Owensboro, Kentucky. It is well over 100’ tall and 21 feet in circumference, and is estimated to be at least 300 years old, although it is probably much older. It has its own mailing address, and can be reached at 2100 Frederica St., Owensboro, KY 42303 if you’d like to send it fan mail. There’s a good chance that the tree is just getting started – there are many, many documented sassafras trees over 1,000 years old. The species itself is an ancient one. Like gingko or bigleaf magnolia, sassafras is one of the oldest flowering broadleaf deciduous trees in existence, with fossil records dating back over 100 million years, meaning that dinosaurs ate it. Sassafras is not a common tree in the Eastern Woodlands, but it’s not a rare one either. Its native range is from New England to central Florida, and from the Atlantic coast west to the Plains. It seems to be at its happiest in the Southern Appalachians, however. Stop off at any mountain pass or overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherohala Skyway, or Skyline Drive and you’ll see thicket after thicket of sassafras. Sassafras is mostly an upland tree in my experience, although you’ll occasionally find it in lowlands or river bottoms. It’s much more likely to be found as an understory tree in ridgetop or cove oak/hickory/tulip poplar forests. Sassafras is one of the easiest of our trees to identify, and it has no deadly mimics, or mimics of any kind, really. The wood is dense, heavy, strong, and weather-resistant. It was traditionally used in shipbuilding, and it excels in bushcraft applications where strength, durability, and weather resistance matter. Sassafras makes superb firewood. Due to its high concentrations of natural oils, it will burn when wet and can be used almost as effectively as pine fatwood for starting fires. It burns hot and long, and makes great coals. It’s an alternate-branching tree with a crooked, gnarly growth habit. Limbs are rarely straight. Its bark is gray-brown with shallow fissures in it when it’s a young sapling, changing to a deep red-brown with peeling strips as the tree ages. However, the easiest way to positively identify it is its leaves. Sassafras is unique in that it can present with multiple different leaf shapes on the same tree, or even on the same branch. Leaves can either be ovate (egg shaped), two lobed (like a mitten… and yes, there are left and right mittens), or tri-lobed, like a turkey foot. On extremely rare occasions (I’ve never seen it) leaves can have five lobes. If you find one of these, save it and press it as a bookmark, because you’ll likely never see another one. Leaves are smooth-edged, and have a thick, almost fleshy texture. Another distinguishing characteristic is the scent. Pick a leaf and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Sassafras has a very distinctive, spicy aroma like nothing else around. Sassafras blooms in the spring and early summer with tiny, compound white flowers, followed by tiny egg-shaped dark blue or black fruit. Although these are an important source of food for birds and other wildlife, they’re not safe for humans to eat. They’ll make you vomit in a major way.
Sassafras really isn’t an edible in the traditional sense. There are plenty of edible/drinkable products made from it, such as tea, candies, and of course, traditional root beer, but in those applications it’s used as more of a flavoring or for medicinal purposes than for nutritional value. The raw leaves can be eaten in a pinch, but you don’t want to eat too many of them. Their combination of volatile oils and lots of fiber can make for a digestive disaster. However, I do like chewing them. They have a nice herbal flavor and freshen your breath really well. Sometimes I’ll even bruise up a few and drop them in an iced water bottle for a refreshing cold infusion. It’s an awesome thing to do on a hot day, and I highly recommend it. The only true edible application of it I can think of is the traditional Creole seasoning file`, which is the dried leaves crushed into a powder. It makes a powerful addition to traditional gumbo.
Sassafras’ primary use is as a medicinal plant, and traditionally, the most popular way to take it has been as a hot infusion, or tea made from the peeled root bark. Old-timers viewed sassafras tea as a sort of cure-all, like a whole medicine chest in one tree. Like Yellowroot, sassafras was sort of an answer to everything. Got a cold or the flu? Drink sassafras tea. Got chicken pox? Drink sassafras tea. Can’t sleep? Drink a hot cup of sassafras tea with honey right before you go to bed. Feeling lethargic and run down during the day? Drink sassafras tea. It could be used externally as a wash, too, and was especially valued for killing external parasites in your hair, like lice, ticks, and fleas. Pioneers and Indians alike loved sassafras tea for its delicious flavor and it ability to treat or cure a wide range of ailments. Before sassafras got put on the no-no list (which we’ll talk about in a minute) there was a credible body of research to back up these claims. A study from shortly after World War I claimed that a sample of the population that drank sassafras tea regularly had 20% fewer colds and fevers than those who didn’t. Like Sweetgum last week, sassafras also contains shikimic acid, which is one of the main ingredients in Tamiflu, a well-respected influenza treatment. It also has blood-thinning and fever-reducing qualities much like aspirin. It is also known to have anxiolytic and mood-boosting properties. So before sassafras became taboo in the 1970s, there was much peer-reviewed scientific research to back up what native tribes and pioneers alike had known for generations: that sassafras was a tried, true, safe, and effective natural remedy for a wide variety of ailments.
The commercial glory days of sassafras are over, but this certainly was not always the case. There was a period in colonial days where sassafras root was the New World’s second-largest export, second only to tobacco. It was hugely popular in Europe for all of the same reasons mentioned above – it was used to make tea, external washes, candies, and of course, the earliest root beer. In Europe and the Colonies alike, there weren’t store-bought pharmaceuticals as we think of them today. The patent-medicine craze hadn’t hit yet, so homebrewers were always looking for recipes for medicinal brews that were good for a wide range of ailments and didn’t taste godawful. One of these was “root beer,” made from different combinations of sassafras root, sarsaparilla, and striped wintergreen mixed with vanilla, honey, or molasses in water to create a sweet, herbal brew that anyone would love, especially kids. Root beer was wildly popular in the Colonies, and it continued to be made with traditional ingredients until the 1960s. Sassafras oil containing the volatile chemical safrole was also commercially valuable, and was used as a base for perfumes and shampoos, as well as cleaning products.
But all that changed in 1960, when an FDA study warned of a potential link between safrole consumption and liver cancer in rats. Many manufacturers pulled their products off the market immediately, and throughout the 1960s and 70s further studies by the FDA supposedly confirmed their findings. However, there are some caveats here. The rats were force fed pure safrole at several hundred times the level of what they could naturally consume. Another issue is that when rats eat and digest safrole, it releases a carcinogenic chemical called 1-hydroxysafrole. This chemical is not produced when humans digest safrole. And no human studies were ever performed. The FDA’s studies are also not peer-reviewed. A private laboratory attempted to reproduce their results and found that the safrole-fed rats were no more likely to develop cancerous tumors than the control sample. And never mind that the alcohol in actual beer is thirteen times more likely to cause cancer than the safrole in root beer. Regardless of your thoughts on the government’s motives, this is poor science no matter how you look at it.
A decade later, the War on Drugs began, and sassafras was banned outright. Why, you ask? Because safrole is one of the primary ingredients in MDMA, or Ecstasy. Indeed, pure safrole oil can cause some of the same effects as Ex, such as euphoria, hallucinations, extreme sensitivity to touch, and out-of-body experiences. To this day, pure safrole oil is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and if you intend to refine any of it, you should probably be aware that the DEA will be knocking on your door if they find out. Between 1978 and 1994, sassafras was completely blacklisted, and possession of the roots could land you in jail, just like possession of any other controlled substance. However, in the early 90s, someone in Congress finally had some good sense and sassafras was legalized in limited quantities under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, so it could at least be possessed for the purposes of herbal medicine without the worry of jail time.
Today, if you do any kind of research at all, this is what you’ll find in regards to sassafras. WebMD and most other mainstream sites list it as a dangerous substance to be avoided… even though all of those claims are based on a single unproven government study from fifty years ago. And to compare sassafras tea with Ecstasy is like saying chewing Peruvian coca leaves is the same thing as smoking crack. To be fair, there are some precautions to be taken when dealing with sassafras. The sawdust can be toxic when inhaled – in a bushcraft setting you’re probably not going to be making enough of it to worry about, but if you’re working with it in a wood shop you’d better have your air cleaner in good working order and wear a full-face respirator. And pure safrole oil is definitely toxic, and really can be dangerous. Historically, it was sold as a rat poison and was used illegally to induce abortions (which may have been one reason the government tried to ban it in the pre-Roe v. Wade era), so pregnant and nursing women should avoid any sassafras products just to be safe. But I’ll reiterate again… you’d need to drink over 200 cups of sassafras tea at the same time to approach a toxic level of safrole.
Conspiracy theories abound as to the motives behind the smear campaign against sassafras, ranging from the farfetched - influence by foreign importers of camphor and star anise (they can be used for similar medicinal purposes) – to the plausible – widespread psychotherapeutic use of MDMA in the 1960s followed shortly by the discovery that it had a potential for abuse. Regardless, it only takes a modicum of research and critical thinking to draw the conclusion that the modern claim of sassafras as a dangerous carcinogen is a faulty one based on junk science. Sassafras was a cornerstone of herbal medicine on two continents for half a millennium, and longer among Native Americans. It was used for a huge range of practical and medicinal applications with great success well into the 20th century, and was used safely. And just as this tree hasn’t changed, neither has what it can do. So go connect with your ancestors and try it for yourself, and drink in the healing power of this ancient tree.
What about you? Have you ever had sassafras tea? Are you old enough to remember drinking real root beer before the recipe was changed? Tell us in the comments! And if you liked what you read here today, share it with your friends! Thanks!