Sassafras: Root Beer Rat Killer

by Green Deane

in Beverage, Jam/Jelly, Medicinal, Plants, Recipes, Spice/Seasoning, Trees/Shrubs

Sassafras tea drinkers have less colds

Sassafras Albidum: Beaux Gumbo

Bet your sweet sassafras!  If you’re on the young side ask anyone not on the young side: Root beer used to taste a lot better, a whole lot better. Why?

Because it used to be made from the Sassafras tree. Nowadays the root beer flavor is concocted from “artificial ingredients.” Why?

Dried leaves are gound to make “file”

Because some researchers force fed some lab rats excessive amounts of sassafras oil —safrole — and they got ill.  That people didn’t get ill from drinking root beer was irrelevant. Safrole was ordered off the market and the state of Louisiana nearly left the union. One can’t have file gumbo without file (fee-LAY) and file comes from the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum.) A compromise was reached with the gumbo foes:  The leaves have barely if any safrole (SAFF-roll) in them so file was allowed but nearly all other consumed uses of the sassafras tree were out.

Non-edible fruit

In all fairness, safrole is a strong oil — also found in the yellow anise tree and the camphor tree. It was used to induce abortions, perhaps a muted reason why research was conduced on safrole in the first place, and why a reason was found to ban it. The lab rats who got extremely high doses ended up getting tumors in their livers and we got root beer tasting like bubble gum.  But, as Dr. James Duke, below left, the author the Handbook of Edible Weeds, has written, safrole has to be put in perspective: Root beer with safrole was 1/13 as cancer-causing as alcohol in beer.

Dr. James Duke, author of the Green Pharmacy

Several thousand tons of Safrole are produced yearly outside the United States in China and Brazil. Distilled Safrole is used in perfume manufacturing and in natural insecticide products. Safrole shipments, however, are  highly monitored internationally because Safrole is also used in the manufacturing of the illegal drug Ecstasy. Another reason to ban it. In high doses Safrole is also hallucinogenic. Said another way, sassafras is unhealthy if you abuse it. File, fortunately, is still legal, so you can buy it or make your own, if you can find a tree.

Sassafras Root Bark

Depending where you live the Sassafras tree —which can live to 1,000 years old — is one of the most common tree you never see, along with the Hercules Club, another topic de blog here. In Florida it’s easier to find marijuana growing in the wild than a sassafras tree… No, that’s not what “eat the weeds” is all about. But, if you do look you can find sassafras They reportedly grow as far north as Maine but I grew up in Maine and never saw one. If anyone knows where there is one in New England, please take a picture and send it along. At least one grows in Connecticut, according to a friend of mine. The usual given range is Massachusetts south to central Florida, west to Iowa and Texas. Locally — Central Florida — I know of one patch of them. One. That said when I take a month off in the summer to go hiking in the North Carolina mountains sassafras is everywhere, nearly a weed.

File gumbo powder

If you tear or crush sassafras leaves, they smell like root beer. You can make tea from the leaves by pouring boiling water over a small handful and letting them seep off heat for a few minutes, straining out the leaves. The roots of a young sapling make a better tea. It also makes a great jelly. Brew three strong cups and follow the Sure Jell recipe. Incidentally, the sassafras fruit resembles a blue berry in a red cup. It is NOT edible.

The name Sassafras (SASS-uh-frass) has been around for over 400 years, and there are several notions of where it came from. The leading contender is that it is a corruption of “saxifrage” which is Spanish from Dead Latin  for “stone breaker” a

Root beer was made with sassafras

reference to using sassafras for the treatment of kidney stones. It is diuretic. Albidum (AL-bih-dum) is also from Dead Latin and means white, referring to the tree’s white roots.  Perhaps out of political correctness, many sites say Sassafras and Albidum are American Indian words but there is little evidence to support that.  Incidentally “Root Beer” was originally called “root tea” by its inventor Charles Hires. A friend, however, suggested he would do better if he called it  “root beer.” Hires, a pharmacist, was on his honeymoon when he came up with the formula for root beer.  I’m not sure what that said about his marriage.

Sassafras has no natural enemies and its oil has been used as an antiseptic, a pain killer, and externally to treat lice and insect bites. It was once used in soaps, perfumery and toothpaste. The twigs were used as toothbrushes. Before WWI, research reportedly showed people who drank sassafras tea had fewer throat infections and colds. The wood is heavy, strong and aromatic and was used in boat and bed building. The bark can yield an orange dye.

Sassafras has three “mittens”

The sassafras is nearly unique among trees by having different shaped leaves on the same tree: Right-hand “mittens,” left-hand “mittens” and double-thumb “mittens.’ On rare occasion, there will be a full glove leaf with five lobes. The leaves have no teeth. The only other “edible” tree that can claim different shaped leaves on the same tree is the Mulberry, but those leaves have teeth. In fact, my red mulberry has only oval leaves and no “mittens” at all. However Paper Mulberry trees do have very large, sand papery mitten leaves with teeth. Paper Mulberry leaves, however, are two to three times larger than sassafras leaves.

Spicebush Butterfly

Besides having an attractive scent for human bird watchers, the sassafras’ deep blue berries are eaten by some 28 birds including bluebirds, robins, red-eyed vireos, pileated woodpeckers, bobwhites and turkeys. Bears like them too. Beavers like the bark ( and apparently are made of sterner stuff than cancer-catching lab rats.) Sassafras was one of the first exports from the new world to Europe. As early as 1584 entrepreneurs were sailing to the Americas exploring and looking for sassafras.  In 1603 two ships left England for North America for the singular purpose to take home sassafras. By 1610 sassafras was so prized that providing sassafras oil was one of the conditions of the Virginia Charter.  (See my Pocahontas and Gamma Rays article.) Back then, in today’s money, a ton of sassafras was worth more than $25,000. I got my sassafras tree, however, for free.

Spicebush butterfly larva

In fact,  got my little sassy sassafras tree from feeding a goat. I stopped along a rail trail one day to feed a milking goat some grass that was just outside her reach — I like goats a lot — and noticed a  sassafras sapling. I transplanted it to my yard because I thought it would be an unusual tree to have and I wouldn’t have to go looking for the next 1,000 years for leaves to make file. File, by the way, is not put in a gumbo, but is a thickening flavoring sprinkled on top, but I will leave those details to the Creole cooks. To make file:

Cut small branches from the tree in the fall when the leaves are starting to turn color. Wash them with water, a spray from a garden hose will do. Hang them to dry in a cool, dark place, at least out of the sun. Sun drying will fade the leaves.  When dry remove leaves from the branches, and if you want, the stems from the leaves.  Crush the leaves by hand. Put in a blender in small batches and blend until a powder.  Sift the powder to get out any large pieces and store in a well-sealed container. A little goes a long way.

Sassafras in autumn

The state, national and world champion Sassafras tree — so named in 1951 — is in Owensboro, Kentucky. It is some 23 feet around and 78 feet high. Only 300 years old, it survived centuries of harvesting only to be threatened with a road widening in 1957. Then owner of the tree, Grace Rash, would have none of that. Her late husband, Dr. O.W. Rash, nominated the tree for the national register. She met the bulldozers with a shotgun and held everyone at gunpoint until a call to the governor, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, produced a pardon for the tree. The road was widened and the tree stayed, thanks to Grace, and Happy. Nowadays a governor would first take an opinion poll before acting, Grace would be locked up and on psychotropic drugs, and the tree dumped in a land fill replaced by a spindly designer picked Chinese elm sapling.

Oh, paleobotanists say the sassafras is like the ginkgo, a living fossil, going back some 100 million years…. They should’ve stuck a label on the tree:  CAUTION: Eating sassafras may produce cancer in dinosaurs.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Leaves, 3 to 6 inches long with 1 to 3 lobes; 2-lobed resembles a mitten, 3-lobed leaf resembles a trident; green above and below and fragrant when crushed. Flower small showy, fruit, dark shiny blue ovoid in a red cup attached to a red stalks, maturing late summer. Twigs slender, green and sometimes hair, spicy-sweet aroma. Usually a shrub in the north, can be a tree in the south but usually a small scraggly tree.

TIME OF YEAR: Available year round.

ENVIRONMENT: Dry sandy spots, full sun to some shade. Here in Florida it likes to grown like a persimmon, along the edges of woods, fields and roads.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Dried leaves for file gumbo, fresh leaves for tea, shoots and boiled roots for tea, twigs for trail toothbrush. A cup of bark in a quart of hot water seeped for 10/12 minutes can also make a good tea.

HERB BLURB

Native American Indians sassafras the local drug store. Sassafras tea served as a pain reliever, stimulant, and diuretic. Safrole used to be called, by some, Shikimic oil. Interesting. Shikimic acid is the active ingredient in the influenza preparation Tamiflu

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken June 15, 2017 at 09:17

Walking the trails in and around Hammonasset beach state park in Madison CT last week, we observed many Sassafras trees and young saplings. You may wish to check this out.
Enjoyed your article.

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Jill June 12, 2017 at 19:44

What is the best nursery to buy a sassfrass tree to be grown in Florida?

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martin Baldino December 31, 2016 at 16:29

My stupid uncle sold the house I was to inherit.On the property was her prized sasafrass tree.75 feet tall and a ddouble tree.The address was 147 Jones st. WestHaven ,Connecticut.I just looked on Google to admire the exotic tree and to my horror the endangered tree was gone.Cut to two monolithic stumps.I want to kill someone!!!

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GG April 30, 2017 at 21:45

That is horrible! I continue to be saddened by things like that. I am a tree hugging nature lover and have no respect for those who think nothing of destroying nature for sometimes very little purpose at all! I feel your anger…😤

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Barbara March 19, 2016 at 10:56

We moved to NW Arkansas a little over a year ago…discovered I have Sassafras trees in my front yard! I remember cousins making homemade root beer when I was young and would love to try it myself. Ours are getting ready to bloom and I hope the impending freeze doesn’t ruin the blooming… I must admit I stumbled across your videos by looking for information on the tree…so glad I did. I enjoyed your presentation style. Thanks for all the information. I will be checking this site for more information in the future.

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Green Deane March 19, 2016 at 16:39

Thank you for your kind words.

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Karen Gadbury March 9, 2016 at 13:05

Ive got lots of young trees growing out back, on the hill here in Tennessee. Ive gotta try using them!

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dom November 20, 2015 at 16:31

says sassafras is hard to find but its everywhere where i live about an acre of forest behind my house is sassafras, tree lines etc.

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Paul October 8, 2015 at 18:21

What other trees can you use the bark or leaves for tea or whatever that are safe? I like using everything as natural as possible.

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Paul October 8, 2015 at 18:20

Ihave been making tea out of the roots since I was a child. I swore it helped from getting a cold. I never knew you could use the bark and leaves for tea. I am also confused about what is toxic. The root? The Bark? or the Leaf. Can someone explain that to me? Thank you. This tree is not only great for tea but the leaves in the fall are so bright yellow.

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M Kellogg September 19, 2015 at 00:15

Hi Deane, just wanted you to know I have several sassafras trees on my 20 acres.
I also have a picture of a tree I would like identified, you you would be so kind. You did show the bark one time and I asked you if they grew in Michigan and you replied with a yes. I can email it to you, but I cannot find your email address. I love reading about all the wonderful things you have to share.
Have a good day and I hope yo email you that photo one day.
Thank you

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KJ September 17, 2015 at 07:10

Hello Deane! Good day to everyone. 🙂

Is this tree illegal to possess or grow? I’m paranoid about storm troopers raiding (and taking) my property because I have a tree that ‘could’ be used for nefarious purposes. I’m just a big plant nerd and I’ve wanted to make homemade root beer from scratch ever since I can remember. I’d love to have this tree but I’m worried it’d bring ‘invasive predators’ to my home. Do I have anything to worry about?

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Green Deane September 18, 2015 at 17:22

No the tree is not illegal to possess… heck some Louisiana police might kiss you for it…

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christina September 19, 2015 at 20:58

N, you don’t. Its a perfectly harmless ordinary tree. When you see it you’ll say, Oh That? It grows everywhere.

I live in Connecticut and it grows everywhere.

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mark jr. September 15, 2015 at 12:04

I live in TN and I am 14. I find a lot of sassafras in the woods next to my house. I make tea all of the time and all year long. What is the best time of year to pick the roots? Or is it okay to pick it any time of the year?

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Green Deane September 15, 2015 at 12:23

Summer and fall are the best though they can be used any time.

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Beth September 7, 2015 at 14:27

In the early 1980’s I would make sassafras tea and take it along to drink during high school track meets. Everybody on my team loved the tea and always asked if I had some. This was in Missouri. I know that sassafras trees grew in Illinois also because my grandmother would take me out mushroom hunting and we would find sassafras.

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Ron Swartz September 6, 2015 at 19:14

I am 72 years old and when I was a kid, my dad would grab a couple of sassafras leaves off of a tree and give one to me and we would eat them. When digging post holes and clearing out some of the trees the roots would smell like root beer and he told about his family making sassafras tea out of the roots when he was young, but we never did that. We would just eat a couple of leaves. When I was probably in my 20’s, I grabbed a couple of leaves and I ate one and had a friend eat the other one. He really questioned me about being OK to eat, and I told him my dad and I ate quite a few when I was young. I think that was the last time I ever ate a sassafras leaf.
Did anyone else just eat the leaf?

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Julie September 21, 2015 at 08:05

Ron, our Amish neighbors do the same thing. They eat the leaves and chew on the stems while they work with fences. They laughed and said it was like chewing gum. We are in SE Indiana and sassafras grows like a weed here. It fills in young tree stands and edges along with elderberry, mulberry, honey locust, and juniper.

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Renee July 13, 2015 at 00:17

I live on Long Island, NY and I have a wonderful one in my backyard. Now I know what to do with the shoots that grow all over the yard.n They smell so wonderful.

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Chris Oxford July 10, 2015 at 21:21

I tho k I may have the westernmost Sassafrass tree in my front yard in Spokane WA. Good friends of ours moved to Upstate New York, and have it growing all over the edges of roads. The found a young sapling and mailes it to us 10 yrs ago. We just harvested some leaves for file, and tried making leaf tea. Very nice.

Tree started at 16 inches, now about 7 ft tall 10 yrs later. It’s doing well, in a semi shady spot on the North of the house.

Every couple years I take a picture with my daughter, 2 yrs older than the tree. 10 yr old Sassafrass and 12 yr old Sassy Ass.

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Matthew December 29, 2016 at 12:50

I also live in spokane WA and was wondering if you still have the tree in your yard? I would love to take a cutting if you wouldn’t mind If I tried to root my own.

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lucia July 7, 2015 at 11:21

How many times is it okay to boil and reuse the same sassafras roots?

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Green Deane July 8, 2015 at 13:04

Until it is not sassafrassy….

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mel holidays May 16, 2015 at 18:33

A question: I have read that safrole is a volatile oil which evaporates. If so, wouldn’t boiling the sassafras root cause the oil to leave the liquid? Tanks.

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Stacy March 6, 2015 at 17:31

Does a tea or concentrate made from the leaves or file taste anything like sassafras bark or root….like root beer? I’m going crazy trying to find a safrole free sassafras extract or bark without added preservatives or colorings.

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Green Deane March 6, 2015 at 17:38

Similar…

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Richard April 22, 2015 at 14:14

first: extract flavour from the plant leaf root etc (somehow like orginal rootbeer manf. ) second: remove the safrole. third: submit sample to a professional lab for analysis.

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Richard April 22, 2015 at 14:45

it would be de-safrolized ? i think the important part might be the safrole incl. ? note: i would check with a local expert as well before consuming anything like this. great page and amazing plant!

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Kevin February 21, 2015 at 00:14

Worked as an Arborist for 15 years on Cape Cod. These are all over from Hyannis to Provincetown. They grow and spread very rapidly with the largest near Pilgrims Monument. These trees are great for hillsides and help prevent soil erosion.

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Wendy January 17, 2015 at 00:05

Is it legal to sell plants/parts online….interstate/intrastate?

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Green Deane January 17, 2015 at 14:39

It usually depends on the plant and what part of the plant.

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charlie December 28, 2014 at 14:01

I have roots boiling now on stove. It’s all over the place here in Northwest/Central Louisiana and East Texas, especially in Longleaf pine country. I can it in my pressure canner to save on shelf. I also put some root in container w/water and Rusty Blackhaw berries, Parsley Hawthorn, and Winter Huckleberries; let them soak in fridge for however long it takes me to get around to it, then boil up berries, squish thru a pillow cas, and make syrup, jelly, etc. And if you get some dried wood;even rotten; with bark on it, it’ll smoke ham, ribs, etc. that’ll make you SLAP YO MAMA!!!!!!! Good like wow! try using some dry pecan wood with it too!

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Melanie Brown November 13, 2014 at 17:07

I see sassafras trees growing in the woods of NH all the time. I’m surprised to hear you say they are scarce. Next time I’m out i will take some photos

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