If you live in south eastern parts of United States, you are likely to come across a deciduous tree with some mitten shaped leaves. Just pinch one and if you find some spicy aroma, you are probably come across Sassafras. Commonly used as ornamental plant, traditionally roots, barks and leaves of the sassafras were used for culinary and medicinal purposes. During colonized world, a huge trade of sassafras happened.
It is also known by some other common names like Ague tree, Cinnamon wood, Bois de Cannelle, Kuntze Saloop, Laurier des Iroquois, Laurus albida, Saloop, Sasafras, Sassafrax, Saxifrax, smelling-stick or wah-en-nah-kas.
Charles Hires invented and promoted Sassafras Root beer as “The Temperance Drink” or “the greatest health giving beverage in the world” and alternate to beer. Root beer and Sassafras tea are still popular.
Lately, research has found that Sassafras oil contains Safrole, a compound which is carcinogenic in nature. Lab tests on rats have showed that Safrole caused liver cancers and tumours. No clinical tests or such cases have been reported yet, however US FDA has banned sassafras oil, safrole and mass production of root beer. Still many people have been enjoying decoction made from Sassafras root and leaves. Sassafras root extracts without any safrole are commercialized today.
Uses of Sassafras
Root, Bark and leaves of Sassafras are commonly used parts of the tree. Sassafras Root tea has been considered as traditional spring tonic. Early North American Iroquois and Seneca tribes used this as remedy for various ailments. Dried Sassafras leaves powders is also known as File powder or gumbo filé and used as seasoning in Native American recipes and Creole cuisine – File Gumbo. It acts as thickening and flavoring agent.
Sassafras essential oil is obtained from steam distillation of root and bark and is used for its fragrance in perfumes and other cosmetics. Safrole from sassafras essential oil is ingredient for manufacture of drug MDMA. Safrole is also used in the manufacturing of the illegal drug Ecstasy.Sassafras oil is also used as pesticide and insect repellant.
Sassafras tree is common garden tree and plays vital role in wildlife ecosystem. Leaves and twigs of the plant are food for wild animals. It plays role of host plant for some bird species and of interest for bird watchers.Sassafras wood is strong and aromatic and used in construction and furniture. An orange dye from bark of sassafras is commercial used. Paste made from Dried root bark is used as a condiment. English morning favorite drink, saloop is made by mixing milk, sugar and this paste.
Health benefits of Sassafras
Native Americans were the first to make medicinal use of sassafras. Health benefits are mainly from Sassafras roots, bark and leaves. Though there is no scientific evidence for any medicinal benefits of sassafras, it has been used as remedy for various ailments in folk medicine. Some of the traditional benefits of sassafras are listed below:
- Traditional records show that it has been used in treatment Syphilis, scurvy and dysentery.
- Sassafras due to its diaphoretic character helps in bringing down fevers.
- Sassafras also helps in lowering the Blood Pressure in case of High Blood pressure Patients. On the contrary, people drinking sassafras tea have found temporary increase in blood circulation.
- Sassafras has been reportedly capable of relieving pains.
- It has been used in swelling in the nose and throat, bronchitis ,chronic cold and other respiratory inflammation.
- It is considered as diuretic and finds use in the removal of Kidney stones.
- In the case of Dysmenorrhea, a case where menstruation is painful and difficult, Sassafras is used to treat the ailment.
- Sassafras has also been used for treating various urinary tract disorders.
- Even skin ailments such as Acne, Eczema and Psoriaris can be treated with the help of Sassafras.
- Along with Guaiacmar and sarsaparilla, it has been used to treat Chronic Rheumatism. There are reports of Sassafras being used to treat Arthritis.
- Sassafras is believed to cure Gout and eye inflammation, conjunctivitis, and erythema.
- It is considered antiviral in nature and used in treatment of measles.
- Sassafras oil has been used as an antiseptic and a pain killer. It has been used to treat lices and insect bite.
- Sassafras oil is used in treatment of gonorrhea and cystirrhoea
- Sassafras tea can also be used as an anticoagulant. It is believed to purify blood and make it thin.
- USDA reports mentions its use as fungicide, dentifrice, rubefacient, diaphoretic, perfume, carminative and sudorific.
- Combined with sarsaparilla in herbal formulas, it is used in folklore medicine to cure prostate problem in men.
- The leaves were used to treat stomach aches and gastrointestinal problems.
- People consuming sassafras tea are believed to have lesser incidence of cold and respiratory problems.
- It is believed to create hallucinations and used traditionally by tribes as dark magic and treating people.
Side effects of Sassafras
Sassafras oil containing Safrole is carcinogenic and mutation causing in nature. High doses of sassafras should be avoided. Dose of more than 0.66 mg of Safrole per kg of body weight is considered poisonous and fatal.
Early experiments with safrole in sassafras oil has found to trigger liver cancer and malignant tumors in rats. This has been reason why FDA has banned commercial production of root beer and sassafras tea extracts with safrole.
However, followers of folk medicines and several herbalists are of the opinion that these preliminary and isolated experiments with purified extracted safrole cannot determine toxic nature of whole sassafras plant. Traditional brewing of sassafras tea and root beer is still done in isolated way and at home.
Safrole is not only present in Sassafras but in various other food forms which we eat. Other food which are sources of Safrole includes Chinese Angelica, Betel oil, Brown & yellow camphor oil, Cangerana oil, Cinnamon leaf & bark oils, Kuromoji oil, Mace oil, Mango ginger oil, Nutmeg oils, Pepper oil, black, Star Anise oil, Ylang-ylang oil. Safrole is ingested by us in edible spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, star anise, ginger, pepper. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop from benefiting from health benefits of these spices.
However, prolonged consumption of sassafras tea can be avoided. Occasionally drinking sassafras tea or root beer, or home made decoction as cure for cold, sassafras tincture can still be done. Dr. James Duke quotes in his book – Handbook of Edible Weeds that Alcohol is 13 times more cancer causing than safrole in Root beer. Despite harmful effects of alcohol, we still consume alcohol! Drinking Sassafras tea or root beer to enjoy traditional health benefits can always be done.
Caution can be taken in case of pregnant women and nursing mothers, who do not want to take risk with the health of the infant. Overdose and prolonged sassafras can result in nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, dilated pupils, anxiety, shakiness, tachycardia or change in heart beat, elevated blood pressure. Content of sassafras are also used in drug MDMA and can cause heightened alertness, sense of euphoria and pleasure.
Can we eat Sassafrus fruits? Sassafras fruits are toxic and non edible.
How to make some Sassafras recipes?
Recipe of File Gumbo
- 1½ cup of roux in a stockpot. When hot add 2 sliced onions, I cup dired celery, 1 cup diced bell pepper. Stir till you find onions turn brown. Now add 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic and continue. Slowly add 2 cups of chicken stock and keep stirring to prevent formation of lumps.
- Add a pound of andouille sausage neatly sliced, browned and drained. Season with some bay leaves, 1 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce, some hot sauce, ¼ tsp of cayenne, salt and pepper as per taste. Add the browned sausage, bay leaves, Worcestershire, hot sauce, cayenne, salt, and pepper.
- When gumbo comes to boil, reduce heat and allow it to simmer for about 30-50 minutes.
- Add 2 quarts of shrimp and 1 tsp of essence in small bowl. Mix shrimp with 1 cup crab meat, ½ cup green onions, ½ cup finely chopped parsley, 2 tbsp of thyme and 1 tbsp of basil.
- Allow the shrimp to cook. Sprinkle in some file powder and cook again. Keep stirring in between.
- Remove bay leaves before serving. Serve in warmed soup bowls over steamed white rice and additional file powder in separate bowl.
How to make Sassafras & Sarsaparilla root tea at home
- Soak 1 tbsp of sassafras root bark, 1 tbsp of sarsaparilla root, ½ tbsp of dandelion root and ½ tbsp of yucca in water. Keep overnight.
- Drain of excess water. In separate tea pot, add some water and mix the overnight roots. Allow this to boil till water reduces to half. Filter the tea and serve. Drinking a cup a week, will be good way to enjoy health benefits of sassafras and nullifying any safrole intake.
This tea is useful to detox your body and liver. It serves as tonic to body and is said to increase your life.
Recipe for Sassafras tea
Soak some sassafras root bark over night. Take 1 tbsp of this soaked root, 1 tsp of chopped ginger and add 3 cups of cold water. Allow this to boil and simmer for 15min. Allow the mixture to cool. Strain the mixture in serving cup. Add some organic honey and serve. You can try with anise or fennel seed, and lemon as well.
This herbal tea is good to keep away cold and cough. It detoxifies and cleanses body.Image Credits: Wikimedia, Flickr - Jeffreyw