Spring Tonics: Dandelions and Sassafras

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Fresh dandelion greens have four times the ­vitamin C, seven times the vitamin A, and twice the potassium of ­romaine lettuce. The German government has approved the leaves for use as a diruretic and ­digestive tonic to treat bloating, indigestion, and poor appetite.
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Dandelions, a vigorous weed, can be cultivated to supply leaves and roots for spring tonics.
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The safrole contained in sassafras tea, a traditional “blood purifier,” damages the liver.
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In the landscape, sassafras trees provide brilliant fall color.
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Chicory, a common roadside weed, can help protect the liver.
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Slippery elm bark, a traditional herb used to treat irritated mucous membranes, is also listed as an over-the-counter drug in the United States.
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Slippery elm bark contains ­numerous carbohydrates, ­especially mucilage.

In past centuries, most people spent cold winters huddled near a fire, eating grains, dried fruits and meats, and the root cellar’s vegetable stores. By ­winter’s end, the urge to purify the body had grown strong, and spring ­presented the opportunity to do so. Evacuation therapy, consisting of a regimen that could include blood purifiers, emetics, laxatives, and induced sweating, was practiced well into the nineteenth century by many cultures of the ­Northern Hemisphere. Many believed that optimal health required this physical “spring cleaning.”

This idea is based on the belief that the blood, bowels, and other systems of elimination retain poisons that must be expelled. Even the best foods, many believed, provided no physical benefit if the body was “clogged” with accumulated toxins. These poisons had to be “cleansed” from the body.

Penn­sylvania Germans used herbs called blutreinigungsmittel, “blood purifiers” or spring tonics. To “thin” the blood in preparation for warmer weather, they ate wild greens ­including dandelion, lettuce, plantain, and watercress. Roots and barks used for the same purpose included sassafras, ­sarsaparilla, and burdock. Another group of remedies were the schwitzgegreider, sweat-inducing herbs like ­European mugwort, wormwood, feverfew, and chamomile.

Blood purifiers

The concept of “blood purifiers” runs deep in herbal ­traditions. Herbalists still use the nineteenth-century term “alterative” to indicate the action of an herb that they believe returns blood or a body system to normal function. Before the discovery of antibiotics, alteratives were used to treat ­infections that could be–and often were–fatal. Because infection was strongly associated with blood, alteratives were understood as internal blood cleansers.

American herbalism’s use of evacuation therapy can be attributed to Samuel Thomson, a self-styled “doctor” born in 1769 to a poor homesteading couple in Alstead, New Hampshire. Thomson claimed to have learned about herbal remedies from an elderly widow, the “yarb” (herb) woman, who took him on foraging jaunts when he was a child. Disdaining farm work, Thomson developed a keen interest in medicinal plants and eventually set himself up in practice.

Thomson devised a plan to distribute his “Thomsonian System” of medicine, thus creating what was probably the first ­multilevel herbal marketing scheme. In 1813, he obtained a patent for it and sold the rights to use it for the then-­exorbitant price of $20 per family. By 1830, Thomson claimed to have three million followers in the United States.

Astragalus is one of several herbs used in Chinese fu-zheng therapy, which seeks to treat disease by ­enhancing or ­promoting the body’s defense mechanisms or normalizing the patient’s central energy.

Thomson’s system interpreted all disease as unbalanced internal and external heat that could be treated with courses of herbal ­remedies, and purging herbs played a major role. The first course was a strong dose of lobelia (Lobelia inflata), which served as an emetic and induced sweating. Next came stimulants such as ginger and cayenne. The third class consisted of “agents to scour the stomach of canker:” herbal combinations that could include roots of bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), waterlily (Nymphaea odorata), the inner bark of hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and other herbs.

Patients were then given “composition powder” to produce more sweating. One Thomsonian recipe for composition powder included 2 pounds bayberry bark, 1 pound hemlockbark, 1 pound gingerroot, 2 ounces cloves, 2 ounces cinnamon, and 2 ounces of cayenne.

Stomach bitters–barberry (Berberis spp.) or goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)–comprised the fourth course of treatment, which was intended to restore the digestive system. The fifth through seventh courses usually included herbs or herbal combinations for ­specific disorders. About sixty species of herbs were used in Thomsonian practice.

Thomson’s system of medicine rapidly lost popularity after his death in 1843, but its impact is still felt. Comparing the medical advice of Jethro Kloss in Back to Eden, first published in 1939, or John Christopher’s School of Natural Healing (1976) reveals direct links with Thomsonian texts.

Pukes and purges

During the nineteenth century, the Shakers supplied a large number of spring tonics to both “regular” medical practitioners and herbal practitioners such as the Thomsonians. Many Shaker manuscripts contain recipes for concoctions to purify the blood and cleanse the body in spring. One group was called “pukes”–concoctions that often contained lobelia or mustard to induce vomiting.

Purging the “torbid liver” comprised part of the spring cleansing ritual for many. Purveyors of patent medicines sold preparations of hepatica, or liverleaf, derived from species of Hepatica, a member of the buttercup family. In 1883, the boom in liver tonics resulted in the consumption of 450,000 pounds of the dried leaves of this diminutive wildflower.

Also popular as a spring tonic was American sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), not to be confused with the tropical “sarsaparilla” from the genus Smilax. This herb, a member of the ginseng family and common in the woods of northern New England, is no longer sold due to lack of demand for it.

The sassafras saga

Perhaps the most famous blood purifier in American herbalism is sassafras, the root bark or tree bark of Sassafras ­albidum. Native Americans throughout the tree’s range often used it; the Choctaw and Delaware Indians employed decoctions of the root bark to purify the blood.

Sassafras was one of the first American exports. Walter Raleigh wrote in 1585, after his second excursion to America, that sassafras was certainly a “merchantable commodity,” and at about that same time the herb was available in Germany. By 1610, the root fetched a price of more than £50 per ton. The 1618 London Pharmacopoeia noted that sassafras imports equaled those of tobacco.

Sassafras root bark, leaves, and flowers were made into tea for blood purification, the root bark being preferred. Although nineteenth-century herbal physicians never adopted it as a primary remedy, it was widely used in homes.

Safrole, the chief chemical constituent of oil of sassafras, comprises 80 to 90 percent of the weight of the oil and gives the herb its characteristic flavor and fragrance. Safrole is carcinogenic and very toxic to the liver. In studies in the late 1950s, rats fed relatively high doses of safrole over several months developed liver cancer, and in 1960 safrole was banned as a food additive. In 1974, the FDA banned the sale of sassafras root bark and leaf.

Varro Tyler likens the risk of drinking sassafras tea to that of smoking cigarettes–the damage accumulates slowly. Recent studies have confirmed that drinking sassafras tea poses danger; one cup of strong sassafras tea can contain as much as 200 mg of safrole, more than four times the amount believed hazardous to humans if consumed regularly. In Hoosier Home Remedies, Tyler documents sassafras tea as the most popular spring tonic used in Indiana. The toxicity of sassafras, however, probably outweighs its benefits.

Although the herb is not included in commercial products, sassafras bark continues to be widely available, especially in the South. Here in northwestern Arkansas, small bundles of sassafras bark can be purchased at springtime farmers’ markets or in supermarket produce sections.

Contemporary spring tonics

Today’s practitioners of phytomedicine generally do not ­accept blood purification as scientifically valid, but the idea has not been fully researched. Thus it is neither proven nor disproven by science.

A spring tonic may help to kick-start your system once outdoor activity picks up after winter. Whether, the folkloric notion of blood thinning or blood purifying has any foundation in fact, yet enjoying wild greens remains a springtime tradition for those who love herbs.

Further Reading

Foster, S. 101 Medicinal Herbs–An Illustrated Guide. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1998.
Foster, S., and V. Tyler. Tyler’s Honest Herbal (4th ed.). Binghamton, New York: Haworth Press, 1999.
Gail, Peter. The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine. Cleveland: Goosefoot Acres Press, 1994.
Newall, C. A., L. A. Anderson, and J. D. Phillipson. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London: The Pharmaceutical Press, 1996.
Tyler, Varro E. Hoosier Home Remedies. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1985.

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