Spring Cleansing: Sassafras Uses

| 6/8/2010 12:04:27 PM

M.DunneMarguerite Dunne is a city girl and traveler. Visit her website at www.herbs-on-hudson.com or listen to her radio show, The Urban Herbalist, on www.wtbq.com. Marguerite was also the third place winner in The Herb Companion's essay contest, "Looking Forward to Herbs."

Now that it's spring, it’s time for me to do an internal spring cleansing. Our bodies respond to the rhythm of the seasons—the waking up of our metabolism is naturally accelerating so that we can grab our spears and hunt buffalo or collect our baskets and gather roots, leaves, twigs, bark, seeds and berries. My favorite springtime tonic is an herb I fell in love with as a child: sassafras. 

Dr. James Duke tells us that sassafras (Sassafras albidum), which was the original herb in root beer, was regarded as a "blood-purifying, all-purpose tonic for whatever ails you...The pleasing tea made it a favored tea on both sides of the Atlantic.” My 1861 US Dispensatory (Materia Medica) notes that the bark of the sassafras root is a stimulant, flavors other teas, renders other teas “more cordial to the stomach,” and has been particularly recommended for "complaints of the rheumatism and cutaneous eruptions.”

Richly colored sassafras leaves make a delicious tea.
Photo by Martin LaBar/Courtesy of Flickr.

In the pharmaceutical industry’s never-ending quest to discredit the indigenous plants with which humankind has co-evolved over the last one million years, they’ve gone after safrole, one of the hundreds of compounds found in this complex plant, linking exaggerated quantities of a single extract with carcinogenic results. The Journal of the American Herbalists Guild pointed out in Volume 9, Number 1, “These studies were in vitro studies that only used safrole in the testing and did not compare to the effects of whole plant extracts. It should also be noted that water infusions of sassafras, which would have significantly less volatile oil content, have been used on a daily basis by various populations in the Appalachian Mountains with no epidemiological increases noted in liver cancers or hepatic toxicity concerns.” So when great-great grandma made her sassafras tea, or great-great grandpa took her to the drug store for a root-beer float, she felt really good afterwards.

I think I’ll go make some tea right now.

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