The Sassafras Tree And Its Uses

by AngelaJohnson

Sassafras roots were used to make tea, flavor beverages and candy, and for medicinal purposes. The leaves are used to make gumbo filé powder.

The sassafras tree has three different leaves on the same tree. One leaf is oval, one is shaped like a mitten, and the third is divided into three lobes, similar to a duck's webbed foot. The leaves curve upward and are between five and seven inches long.

Early North American settlers used the roots to make tea and many people continue to do so, even though the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) banned its use commercially in 1976.

You can still harvest your own sassafras roots or buy it online as an herb.

I took all the photos of the sassafras tree leaves, except for the blossoms, which was on Wikipedia. ~~ Angela Johnson

See The Three Different Leaf Shapes on a Sassafras Sapling

Three Leaf Shapes on Sassafras Sapling
Three Leaf Shapes on Sassafras Sapling

About the Sassafras Tree

sassafras tree flowers

Sassafras trees are native to the eastern United States from Florida to Maine, but also found in the midwest. 

The trees grow in thickets and at the edges of woods and forests. Sassafras was introduced to Europe, where it is now naturalized and grows in wooded areas. 

The largest Sassafras tree in the United States is located in Owensboro, Kentucky, which measures over 100 feet high and 21 feet in circumference.  It was first mentioned for its size in 1883.

All parts of the sassafras tree are fragrant;  twigs and young leaves smell like lemons when they are crushed, and mature leaves smell like root beer when broken or crushed (actually root beer smells like sassafras). 

My Aunt Lois lived in southern Illinois and I liked to walk in a woods behind my her house. I learned to identify small sassafras trees (saplings) because of their three different leaf shapes. I took photos of the leaves when they were new and green, and then throughout the autumn when they changed to yellow, orange, and red colors.

Sassafras trees usually grow from 20-40 feet high, although I've never noticed one. By the time they're that tall, I'd wouldn't be able to see the leaves so I need to learn to notice different tree barks.

photo of sassafras flowers from wikipedia commons

A Sample of Tree Identification Guides on Amazon

Click on any product and then continue to search for books relevant to your area.
Michigan Trees, Revised and Updated: A Guide to the Trees of the Great Lakes Region

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Trees of Texas Field Guide

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Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region

Tree peepers everywhere will enjoy these two guides which explore the incredible environment of our country's forests-including seasonal features, habitat, range, and lore. Near...

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Sassafras Leaves in the Fall

Sassafras Leaves in the Fall
Sassafras Leaves in the Fall
Own photo - taken by Angela Johnson

Sassafras Tea - A Spring Tonic

Sassafras Leaves in Springtime  "Drink sassafras tea during the month of March and you won't need a doctor all year."  ~~~ An Old Mountain Saying

I've heard my mother and aunt talking about having sassafras tea when they were children (they lived in southern Illinois).  My grandmother would dig some of the roots in early spring and boil them to make tea.  I've never had "real" sassafras tea, but I hope to try it some day.  

USING SASSAFRAS ROOTS TO MAKE TEA

Find a sapling (small tree) and dig until you expose the roots.  Pull or cut out the roots; they'll be long and thin.  

~~ When you get home, scrub the roots until they're clean.  If the roots are big, pound them with a hammer or other tool to release more flavor when it boils.

~~ I haven't been able to find an exact recipe for making sassafras tea - it depends on whether you want to drink it hot or cold, or even as a tonic.

~~ For your first attempt at making tea, put 2 - 4 ounces of clean root bark in a quart of boiling water.  Bring the water to a boil again and then remove the pan from the heat.  Let the tea steep around 20 minutes.

~~ Try the tea at this time or let it cool for an iced tea.

~~ If the tea is too strong, add more water until you're satisfied.  You may also prefer to sweeten your tea with sugar or honey.  Each time you make sassafras tea, you'll learn how much root and how much water to use.  

~~ If you don't use all your roots, make sure they're clean and let them dry out completely. The dry roots will last a long time.

Making Sassafras Tea (Video)

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The FDA Banned Sassafras for Commercial Use in 1976

Sassafras roots have been used for urinary tract disorders, syphilis, bronchitis, high blood pressure, gout, cancer, a blood purifier, and more. 

It can be applied directly to the skin to treat skin problems, insect bites and stings, sore joints (rheumatism), sprains, and swollen eyes. 

Sassafras used to be used to flavor drinks (especially root beer), to flavor candy, and make tea.  But it was learned that sassafras root contains safrole, a chemical that can cause cancer. After conducting tests on rats, the FDA banned sassafras from commercial use in 1976 unless the safrole has been removed first.  

Some people claim that the testing was not accurate because the rats were injected with safrole rather than being allowed to drink it as a tea, and the doses were much higher than humans would normally consume (comparing body weight).  

Powdered sassafras leaves are still sold as Filé powder, a thickening spice for gumbo, because they don’t contain a significant amount of safrole.

You can harvest your own sassafras, of course, or buy genuine root online if it's sold as an herb. Or you can buy commercial sassafras tea, drinks or candy with the safrole removed, or products with artificial flavors.

Sassafras Concentrate for Tea (Safrole Free)

Pappy's Old Fashioned Sassafras Tea Concentrate, 12 fl oz

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You Can Buy Sassafras Root Online (not sold as a tea)

Sassafras Root Bark, Cut & Sifted, W.C. Frontier Natural Products 1 lbs Bulk

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Sassafras Root Bark Cut & Sifted - Sassafras albidum, 4 Oz,(Starwest Botanicals)

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Interested in Edible and Medicinal Plants?

A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America (Peterson Field Guides)

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Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use

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Updated: 04/10/2017, AngelaJohnson
 
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AngelaJohnson on 04/10/2017

I've had sassafrass candy, too, when I was a kid, but not sassafras tea. Unfortunately, I don't live in Illinois anymore, and it doesn't grow in South Texas where I live now. I'll have to buy some sassafras root online.

Susan on 04/10/2017

I can remember having sassafras candy when I was a kid, similar to root beer flavor, and trying sassafras tea that someone, maybe my dad or one of my aunts, made from a sassafras tree in their yard. I really don't remember the leaves, but how cool that the tree has the three different shapes of leaves. Interesting article!

AngelaJohnson on 10/23/2014

Always-Writing - I'm glad you liked my article. It appears we like many of the same things.

Always-Writing on 10/21/2014

Aha! You beat me to it! I was going to write a comprehensive article about Sassafras - one of my favorite teas, and saw this article of yours. Great job, too!

Mira on 09/11/2014

The word sounded familiar but I didn't know sassafras could be this interesting :). I love those leaves, by the way!

pateluday on 09/11/2014

Similarly in India it is said that you have juice of Neem (Azadirachta indica) during the fruiting season you will not need the doctor year around. I must try it.
Thank for the informative article.

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