Sassafras Uses and Benefits

Join Julie Polanco on this episode of Crunchy Christian Podcast as she discusses sassafras uses and benefits.Join Julie Polanco on this episode of Crunchy Christian Podcast as she discusses sassafras uses and benefits. Find out how this common, aggressive weedy tree has been used for centuries to help with many health issues.

Some Facts About Sassafras

History

Sassafras albidum is a distinctly North American weed tree and North America’s only spice. Native Americans used it for centuries before explorers and colonists arrived. The Cherokee people used sassafras tea to purify blood and for a large variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and malaria-type fevers, and heart trouble. The Cherokee would also make a poultice to cleanse wounds and sores, while they’d steep the root bark to treat diarrhea or for ‘over-fatness.’ Other tribes used sassafras in similar ways and also used it as a thickener in stews.

When the Europeans arrived, Native Americans in Virginia pointed out ‘wynauk‘ (literally sweet wood) to British settlers. And in 1603, a newly formed British lumber company sent two ships to America for the sole purpose of exporting sassafras trees. Thus, sassafras was one of the first, if not the first, forest products to be exported from what is now the mid-Atlantic states, starting in the early 1600’s. From then on, the demand for sassafras uses and benefits grew by leaps and bounds. Find out more about it on the podcast!

Eventually, the craze faded. Today, it is still used as a thickener in Creole dishes. In communities in the Appalachian Mountains, folks persist in drinking their traditional sassafras tea just as their ancestors did. And, artisan root beer still contains sassafras, but with the safrole removed. It is removed because the United States Food & Drug Administration banned it in 1976 after a few studies found it to be a weak carcinogen in experiments with rats.

What does it look like?

This tree is unusual because it has four different leaves on the same tree. They are commonly referred to as mitten left and right, football, and three-fingers. In early spring, little clusters of yellowish flowers appear and of course, produce blue-black berries in midsummer. Do not eat the fruit, even though animals and birds eat it!

White sassafras only grows to about 6 feet and is found along roadways and in city yards. But, red sassafras, found in mountainous areas, grows up to 100 feet in some areas. One way to tell the difference is by whether the bark changes color when damaged or not. Both have historically been used, but the red variety is most prized for lumber.

Sassafras Uses and Benefits

Historically, all parts of this tree except the berries have been used. The dried root bark was mixed with milk and sugar to make an English drink called saloop. And, it is still used as a thickener in Creole dishes. If you are lucky enough to find an artisan root beer company, you may find sassafras as an ingredient on their label. You can eat the young leaves in salads and add a nice slightly sweet touch to your meal.

Medicinal Uses and Constituents

The main active chemical constituents are: methyleugenol, safrole, and camphor. The highest concentrations of these chemicals are found in the bark.  The methyleugenol provides the sweet fragrance of sassafras and repels insects, which is why it was effective against chicken lice. The safrole and camphor account for the medicinal properties and traditional uses of sassafras.  The principle sassafras uses and benefits include: blood purifier, pain reliever, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory. Learn about more Sassafras uses and benefits on the podcast!

Warning

Isolated safrole is banned by the U.S. F.D.A. The highest concentrations are in the essential oil, which is what the FDA cited studies used. Safrole does have carcinogenic properties, but the amount contained in sassafras is almost the same as in nutmeg and nutmeg was not banned. Furthermore, Peterson’s Guide notes that “there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.”

Traditionally, sassafras essential oil was not used, but rather the whole plant parts. However, long term use is not advised. Do not use the essential oil. Even the Native Americans advised against drinking the tea for more than a week at a time. Also, do not use if you are pregnant and do not give it to children. If you happen to have a sassafras tree growing in your yard, exercise caution and good judgement.

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