Sassafras is a common tree in our area, and can be found in every stand of woods of much size. It has been used as a medicinal and a beverage flavoring for centuries. As a spring tonic, sassafras tea was used to thin the blood, improving circulation. It has been proven to reduce blood pressure. As a drink, sassafras tea is quite good and can be consumed hot or cold. The flavor is similar to root beer.
Sassafras can be identified by its leaves during the summer. They have a smooth edge and come in three shapes: paddle, mitten, and trident. The end twigs are green and smell spicy when scratched. The bark is reddish brown, with most of the red color concentrated in the crevices. The inner bark is orange and spicy smelling.
Sassafras has been found to contain carcinogenic chemicals, so be forewarned and don’t drink a lot of it for extended periods. But for the occasional cup of tea the roots can be harvested year round, using a mattock to grub them out. A strong, pleasant odor of root beer will tell you if you have the right roots. Clean the roots and chip off the outer bark with a knife. The chips can be used at once or dried and stored indefinitely.
To make tea, put a few chips of root bark in a little water, cover and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 5 minutes and then pour through a strainer into a cup. Sweeten with sugar or honey to taste. The tea should have a bright orange color, pleasant odor, and distinct taste. Don’t discard the used root bark, as it’s good for several brewings before becoming too weak. It is reported that the best tea comes from the second and third brewing.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.