[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 86 – Let’s Learn About Sassafras

As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unself-consciously to the soughing of the trees.

– Valerie Andrews, A Passion for this Earth

Have you ever drank root beer? Most likely you have! Did you know that the name “root beer” was called such originally because the flavoring was from a bunch of tree and plant roots? Sassafras and Sarsaparilla were two popular roots that were used in the tonic. Today most root beers are artificially flavored or flavored with safrole-free Sassafras extract.

Though it has been used by Native Americans for hundreds of years as a tonic and as medicine, the first written documentation of Sassafras’ uses were recorded in 1574 by Nicolas Monardes, in which he wrote 22 pages on the tree. He was a fan of Sassafras!

Do you have Sassafras growing near you? If so, harvest a bit of the root to do a taste test. If not, try it with a bit of dried (see resources for listings of where to purchase it). Put a bit in your mouth and chew it. What is your first impression? What are you tasting? Is it sweet? A bit pungent? Aromatic? How does it feel in your mouth? Do you find it warming or cooling? Does it seem to dry your mouth or moisten it? Most people describe Sassafras as pungent, sweet, aromatic, warm and moisten. Is that how you would describe it?

Traditionally the root and root bark is used but the twigs and the leaves can also be used.

Nutritionally, not much is listed for Sassafras due to his past ban by the FDA. Sassafras does contain iron. Sassafras contains alkaloids such as boldine, norboldine and reticuline, the volatile oils thujone, safrole, camphor, asarone, eugenol, pinene, myristicin, and anethole, albumin, gum, sassafrid, sitosterol, the lignans sesame and desmethoxyaschantin, mucilage, tannin, resin and wax.

Medicinally, Sassafras is alterative, anodyne, antigalactagoguge, antirheumatic, antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, carminative, circulatory stimulant, decongestant, demulcent, diaphoretic, diuretic, emmenagogue, mucilaginous, stimulant, tonic and vasodilator.

Let’s take a look at what we can use Sassafras for…

Before we get into the uses of Sassafras, I want to address the concern of Sassafras being carcinogenic. The FDA has placed a ban on using Sassafras commercially due to a lab test performed on rats back in the late 50’s. The constituent safrole (which is also found in anise, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper) was isolated and force fed in extremely large doses to the rats over a period of time until they got cancer. A third party decided to test safrole and found it not cause cancer in humans. The tests concluded that when the safrole was digested, it broke down and produced a carcinogen in their digestive tract. However, when humans digest safrole, this chemical is not produced, nor are any other carcinogenic chemicals. Of course, you should make your own decision on whether or not Sassafras is safe to consume.

Interestingly enough, the Native Americans have traditionally used Sassafras for treating cancer and studies have shown that safrole may actually be anticancer.

Sassafras was often used in the spring as a tonic. As an alterative and tonic, Sassafras gets the blood moving, which was often sluggish at the end of winter due to several months of eating only preserved meats and foods. With the surge of spring came tonics and greens to get the body cleaned out and ready for a long working summer and Sassafras was one of those plants employed to help boost their energy and stamina. As a vasodilator, Sassafras is similar to Yarrow in that he stirs up stagnant blood, moving it to the surface which opens up our pores and helps us to perspire. This action also thins the blood which helps with cardiovascular health, and improves peripheral circulation, including to the brain, which can be helpful for mental clarity. Those with cold hands and feet may also find Sassafras useful.

As a diuretic, Sassafras assists the kidneys to reduce edema, combats nephritis and has been used to dissolve stones. Sassafras also assists the liver and has been helpful for chronic eczema, dermatosis, acne, and jaundice. Sassafras is also antirheumatic, and helps with rheumatism, gout and arthritis. Traditionally, Sassafras was combined with Sarsaparilla to make a tea used for many things including rheumatism.

Sassafras is carminative and aromatic, aiding in digestive issues such as abdominal pain and distention, gas and indigestion, and promotes good digestion. Sassafras was often drank as a tea to help with digestive issues and is warming to the digestive tract. Gumbo filé, which is powdered Sassafras leaves, is often added to southern cooking, a practice introduced by Native Americans to the European and African settlers in the south.

Women have long used Sassafras as an emmenagogue for reproductive health including delayed or stopped menses, cramping, infertility, amenorrhea, spasmodic dysmenorrhea as well as postpartum pain. As a antigalactagogue, Sassafras can help to reduce the flow of milk in a nursing mother. Please note that women who are pregnant should not use Sassafras.

For the respiratory system, Sassafras has been used to soothe dry coughs, sore throats, remittent fevers, and acute issues such as sinusitis, colds and bronchitis. As a decongestant, Sassafras helps to clear out the sinus and bronchial passages.

Externally, Sassafras can be applied to sore eyes, dark bruises, muscular and joint pain, sprains, strains, sores, wounds, boils, ingrown hairs, and insect bites. As an anodyne and antiseptic, Sassafras is great at cleaning and soothing cuts, bumps and bruises on the body. Sassafras is also used for poison ivy rashes. The pith of Sassafras is mucilaginous, making a nice demulcent poultice that can be applied externally to soothe.

Sassafras should not be used by folks who are on blood thinning medications, those who bleed easily and those who typically run hot as he can increase these issues. Pregnant women should also abstain from using Sassafras. And though it’s most likely not harmful, as a precaution, Sassafras should not be used for long term use.

Do you work with Sassafras in your herbal practice? If not will you be trying it this year?

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