- Ague Tree
Although early merchants confused the sassafras tree with cinnamon, today it is distinct in its appearance and description. There are three species of this tree. One is found in large numbers in North America while the other two belong to East Asia. It is the one from North America that is known for its medicinal properties. It grows nearly 60 feet tall. Sassafras has three pronged leaves and oval leaves which grow all over the branches. It has a red blueberry flower, spongy red bark, and yellow flowers. The Choctaw Indians used to make a paste of dried leaves to be used as a thickening and flavoring agent in soups and stews. The sassafras tree has strong bark and roots therefore it is pest free and does not get diseased. Today even the value of the sassafras tree is not diminished. The leaves are used in salads in small quantities. When the dried root bark is boiled in water with sugar it can be used as a condiment.
There is a whisper in the woods as trees grow silently revealing to humans their secrets. For millions of years trees and shrubs all over the world have been useful to humanity. It is a known fact that herbal treatment should not be taken without proper supervision. In the forests of North America, the tall sassafras tree has proved their medicinal worth centuries ago. Modern herbalists are trying to revive its utility value once again despite various controversies surrounding its good and bad properties. The use of sassafras barks, oil and leaves without proper knowledge can be dangerous. It can help you live longer or shake you out of your mortal coil. More than 75 % of the human race is returning to ancient healing methods. The revival of interest in medicinal properties of sassafras brings back its aroma. As we leaf through historical records with caution this is what we learn about it.
The earliest use of the sassafras tree was by Native Americans in the 15th century. With traveling merchants it reached the European woods and spread its medicinal and ornamental value. Sassafras is still used as an ornamental tree in English gardens. Sassafras keeps mosquitoes and flies away therefore it is an asset to any garden. The root bark has been fermented to make molasses and beer. As ancient doctors experimented with its uses they found it to be useful in making tea, candy and perfumes (because of its essential aroma). But we essentially need to know now what the researchers have to say. Way back in the 1960s researchers discovered that safrole, a substance present in this flowering tree, was a carcinogenic agent. It contributed to liver cancer in rats during experiments. With the result the FDA banned the bark, oil and safrole as a flavouring agent and as a food additive. At least 9% of sassafras oil has nearly 80% of the dangerous substance safrole making it unhealthy to use. Granted that it was used as a flavouring agent for root beers and for other beverages like tea. But experiments have left health officials nodding their heads in unison that it is dangerous. Manufacturers are selling regardless of the dangers involved. Today it is proven that a strong cup of tea with sassafras has 200mg of safrole. In 1976 FDA banned the sassafras tea. This is four times more than the prescribed usage for consumption. As the business has to go on some manufacturers are producing safrole free barks. That is the major reason why it has been in circulation in the health market. Despite this some experiments show that tumours are forming during animal testing. Further proving that sassafras has carcinogenic properties in its other parts too.
All is not lost though as its applications and uses behold its medicinal properties. Sassafras is still being used externally for skin aliments, wounds and rubbing of oil on affected areas. In Europe, sassafras was used to cure syphilis. Although it can safely be used for eczema and psoriasis it is found to relieve arthritic pain, gout and rheumatism. Its strong smell makes its useful for dental care too. It can be used as a mouthwash to remove infection. Sassafras can also be applied on the head to kill lice. It is useful to relive intestinal gas. It has proved well as a diuretic too. Sassafras can be used in fevers. So much warning comes with the properties many patients shy away from using it. Like every other tree has its worth, sassafras too enjoys its position in the medical world. The root after it is free from safrole is used as a flavouring agent and the leaves are useful for file powder. Its aroma is useful as potpourri in rooms for creating fragrance. And what else is the tree useful for – making fences, boats and canoes, furniture, can be used as cooperage as it can be a good source for timber. There is a story that beds made from sassafras get out fragrance so that evil spirits keep away. One cannot deny the curative abilities of the tree. Tree lovers still respect its utility.
Habitat and cultivation
Sassafras is native to eastern parts of North America – Ontario to Florida and Texas, and all the way to Missouri.
Infusion: sassafras’ infusion should be drunk thrice daily. To make one, pour a cup of boiling water over one to two tsp. of the dried sassafras, and then leave it to infuse for about ten to fifteen minutes.
Oil: sassafras oil should never be taken internally. It is used for the external lice treatment.
Tincture: one to two ml of the sassafras tincture thrice daily.
Collection and harvesting
The root of sassafras is unearthed to gather this herb.
Liver / endocrine tonic tea
- 3 parts sassafras root bark,
- 2 parts sarsaparilla root,
- 1/2 part wild yam root,
- 1 part dandelion root,
- 1/2 part cinnamon bark,
- 1 part licorice root,
- 1/2 part ginger root,
- 1/2 part yellow dock root,
- Pinch of stevia (optional).
Blend these ingredients and take one teaspoon of it for every cup of the tonic or about four to six tablespoon of the mixture to prepare one quart of the tonic. Put all the herbs in cold water and put the container on a low heat to boil them slowly. Let the mixture seethe gently for roughly 20 minutes. Subsequently, filter the liquid and store it in a thermos or a quart jar.
- From Brenda Crum – Jan-15-2014
- I personally have been drinking sassafras tea for most of my life. I have always loved the flavour, I dig the root when the sap goes down in the winter. Then I wash and dry it and I have it to make my tea in the spring and summer. I have no known ailments and haven’t even had to go to a doctor since my last child was born 22 years ago. I feel like a new person when I drink it and it gives me lots of energy, I’ve never had hallucinations and I think a lot of this is bogus bullcrap. I wonder to how much safrole oil they put in these mice!!! I believe it is one of the best teas you can drink as with anything if you don’t over do. Just my opinion. I love it.
- From Anonymous – Apr-12-2011
- Only the safrole, an oil extracted from the root of the sassafras, can give you cancer. Tea is usually made from the bark of the tree, and Gumbo File is the ground leaves. Only the safrole is banned, note: sassafras tea was banned as well, but the passing of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 lifted the ban; double-note: safrole is also a precursor chemical for ecstasy and possibly meth.
- From Monsignor – 2010
- I have been making period “civil war” gun carriages, limbers, hope chest, wagons, etc. out of sassafras lumber for years now primarily because of the beauty, grain, and its insect and rot resistance. As an Appalachian child, my grandmother use to give me the tea for cough and or the flu.
I wonder how much safrole they gave those mice in the experiments by the government? My gut feeling is that those of us that grew up with sassafras tea have no more cancer than city folks and I would guess even less.
Digging the roots is a tough business for an old geezer like me although I have an impressive pile of tree bark – it has a very strong sassafras smell! Perhaps, the tree bark might be a good substitute of the root bark. I just don’t know.
- From India – 2010
- It is an old tradition in New Orleans to thicken gumbo with “file” (pronounced “fee-lay”). I’m wondering how carcinogenic this is. Of course there are other ways to thicken soup but sassafras gives it a unique flavour.