While passing by the cemetery on campus one day, I noticed a few little sprouted saplings with very particularly-shaped leaves. I got very excited when I moved in closer and saw the definitive “mitten” shape of some of the leaves. I pinched one and sniffed, smelling a strong spicy aroma almost immediately. I knew at that point I was dealing with sassafras.
Sassafras is one of those herbs that you can’t avoid in the South. It grows in all sorts of adverse environments: roadsides, hedgerows, waste spaces, etc. It can be short and bushy in its early years of development, but becomes a full-sized tree given enough time. The roots and bark have long been used in culinary and medicinal applications. If you’ve ever had a root beer, there’s a chance that you have tasted this plant, as sassafras and sarsaparilla were the two primary flavors in that drink for a long time. In recent years (since 1960), active ingredient in sassafras, called safrole, has been officially banned by the USDA as potential carcinogen. So most of the root beer sold now uses artificial flavors to reproduce the sassafras and sarsaparilla taste. The leaves of sassafras also feature in Cajun cooking; dried and powdered, they become file powder, which is used to thicken stews like gumbo.
Medicinally, sassafras is a tricky root to use. According to botanical.com, “Oil of Sassafras is chiefly used for flavouring purposes, particularly to conceal the flavour of opium when given to children. In the United States of America it is employed for flavouring effervescing drinks…Aromatic, stimulant, diaphoretic, alterative. It is rarely given alone, but is often combined with guaiacum or sarsaparilla in chronic rheumatism, syphilis, and skin diseases.” It also seems to have a strong effect on women’s reproductive systems, easing menstrual pain, but also potentially causing abortions. Several health problems have been connected to consuming overdoses of safrole, including vomiting, collapse, pupil dilation, and cancer. WARNING! Consult a physician before taking ANY herb or root internally! Sassafras is NO EXCEPTION!
Sassafras bark and root have long been made into teas in the Appalachians. In Foxfire 4, informant Pearl Martin showed students Bit Carver and Annette Sutherland how to gather the herb and make the drink:
“Sassafras is a wild plant that grows in the Appalachians…The spicy, distinct flavor of sassafras makes the tea a popular beverage, served hot or cold…Pearl told us that she could gather roots any time of the year without affecting the taste of the tea. However, the roots should be gathered young, so they will be tender…She chops the roots from the plants, then washes the roots in cold water. Next she scrapes off the outer layer of bark and discards it. Either the roots or the bark can be used in making the tea, but Pearl prefers the roots. They can be used dried or green. She brings the roots to a boil in water. The longer they are boiled, the stronger the tea. To make a gallon of tea, she boils four average-sized roots [which appear to be about a foot long and an inch thick] in a gallon of water for fifteen to twenty minutes. She then strains it, and serves it either hot or iced, sweetened with either sugar or honey” ( p. 444).
While the safrole content of the tea is relatively low, again you should consult with a physician before drinking this tea.
Magically speaking, sassafras is a money root. It attracts business success and material wealth. Putting a little sassafras root in one’s wallet or purse keeps money from running out. Catherine Yronwode has several good charms in her Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic book, including a business attracting sidewalk scrub made from sassafras, allspice, and cinnamon (which has the added bonus of a pleasant aroma), and this powerful little Money-Stay-with-Me mojo hand:
“Jam a silver dime into an alligator foot [available from Lucky Mojo and other botanicas and curiosity shops] so that it looks like the ‘gator is grabbing the coin. Wrap it tightly with three windings around of red flannel, sprinkling sassafras root chips between each layer as you wind, and sew it tight. Just as the alligator foot holds the coin and won’t let go, so will you be able to save instead of spend” (p. 179).
Sounds like a pretty wonderful charm to know, in my opinion. I’ve not seen anything particularly about burning sassafras as incense, but I did find a book called A Collection of Folklore by Undergraduate Students of East Tennessee State University edited by Thomas G. Burton and Ambrose N. Manning which records a bit of superstition claiming that bad luck comes if you “burn sassafras wood” (p. 74). The lore in this particular collection is all from first-hand sources, so I tend to think it’s got some weight. A similar folklore collection from Kentucky elaborates on this point, saying, “If you burn sassafras wood or leaves, a horse or a mule of yours will die within a week” (from Kentucky Superstitions, #2993). I tend to think this refers to burning wood in a fire or fireplace as opposed to using a little bit of it as incense, but take your chances as you see fit. Particularly if your horses or mules are dear to you.
I hope this post has been of some use to you! Enjoy the slowly waning summer, and get out in the woods to find some sassafras and other plants!
Thanks for reading,