The Sassafras is a well-known tree here in the Ozarks. With its three pronged leaves and distinct lemony smell it’s easily identifiable even by the most amateur herbalist. It’s long been used as a spring tonic for thinning out the blood and helping to clean out the body. Spring tonics like this would have only been consumed for a few days in the springtime, usually around when the tonic plants were at their prime. The old folks never knew about safrole, the active chemical compound in sassafras that has led it to be classified as a harmful plant. But they did know that to get the benefits out of a good sassafras tonic meant drinking the tea for no more than a week. Any more than that can lead to liver damage. In the end that’s the point of the tonic in general, a quick cleansing of the body systems at certain times out of the year, they’re not intended for prolonged usage, and the old folks, despite their little education, knew that well.
I can remember drinking sassafras tonic a couple times in my childhood, both times the fresh red roots were dug up, washed, smashed, then set to boil for a little bit. The tea was then taken hot and without any sugar. The memorable root beer flavor has never left my mouth.
For the past few years I’ve taken to drinking the tonic every spring, once a day for about a week. I’m not sure I’ve ever really felt the benefits of the drink, but I do always feel good after having a cup. Something about that flavor connects me back to good memories, and I’m sure the memories carried by my ancestors.
Besides the benefits of the root, the leaves can be used in poultices to help with inflamed skin, rashes, and bug bites. The dried, crushed leaves, called filé powder, are also used in Cajun cooking as a flavoring and thickening agent.
Here’s what Vance Randolph has to say about sassafras in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“Sassafras tea, made from the bark of sassafras roots in the spring, is supposed to thin or purify the blood. It has the color of tawny port, and a very fine flavor though too much boiling makes it bitter. Some people put small quantities of May apple, wild cherry, and goldenseal into their sassafras tea, but most of the old folks take it neat. Sassafras is used not only in the backwoods but more or less all over the country. I have seen men selling little bundles of sassafras roots in the streets of Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield, and Joplin, Missouri, and also in Fort Smith and Little Rock, Arkansas. The old-timers use only the fresh red roots the smaller and redder the better. The fellows who sell the stuff split larger whitish roots up to look like young ones, but the big roots don’t make the best tea.
“The drugstores sell dried sassafras bark the year round, and some people buy this stuff in the winter, but the hillfolk claim that only the fresh roots have any value as medicine. Many of them say that sassafras is no good until Groundhog
Day February 14.”