Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sassafras Digging for Tea

See the three leaf shapes?

Now that the ground has thawed, we can get out to dig some roots, rhizomes, and bulbs. In spring they are nice and fat because the plant is still dormant and hasn't used the stored energy in the bulbs yet.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a native tree in North America that grows and is common in the eastern United States from Iowa, south to Texas, and to the east coast. The bark of mature tree trunks is deeply furrowed and dark reddish-brown, while the bark of young saplings and twigs is green. Sassafras trees have three, smooth-edged, differently shaped leaves on a single tree: a simple oval leaf, a bi-lobed leaf that looks like a mitten, and a tri-lobed leaf that kind of looks like a dinosaur footprint. The small, yellowish flowers have not started blooming yet here in Connecticut, making it still a good time to dig the roots. The roots of sassafras grow horizontally to the surface of the ground and often not very deeply, making them relatively easy to collect. Sassafras suckers many small saplings each year from the "mother" tree, and most will not survive under the forest canopy. Digging the roots of small sassafras saplings will not affect the overall population in the wild, it is sometimes even considered a weed tree.

Outer bark and cambium layer shaves from sassafras roots

The smaller roots and outer skin of bigger roots of sassafras contain the most fragrant parts to use for an infusion. We just chop the smaller roots into discs, and skin the larger roots with a machete once washed well to remove the dirt. The chopped roots are then air-dried in a warm, sunny window and stored in jars. The infusion is made by gently simmering the roots for about 20 minutes, and can be served warm or cold, lightly sweetened with honey. The infusion is a golden-red color and very fragrant--almost spicy. "Root" beer can also be lightly fermented from sweetened sassafras decoction to add fizzy bubbles and a very small alcoholic content. Seltzer can also be added to a particularly strong decoction for bubbles. Note: the FDA has put out a warning that sassafras is carcinogenic because of safrol. They determined this by dosing rats with incredibly high levels of pure safrol oil to possibly limit the production and sale of safrol, a component in the manufacture of the street drug Ecstasy. We feel that drinking reasonable amounts of sassafras tea is safe and very enjoyable. Please make your own decision as to the consumption of sassafras tea.--edited to clarify our opinion.

Sassafras root infusion

Fermented sassafras root beer

Sassafras infusion, or tea, was once considered medicinal in the early colonies, "good for whatever ails you". It was exported to England in large quantities until the market was over saturated. Sassafras was also considered a great cure for syphilis, and many people probably didn't want to be seen drinking it for fear of being potentially a sufferer of the disease!

Sassafras flowers
The leaves of sassafras also make a fragrant spice; it is actually the source for filé powder. Filé can be made by collecting the leaves in the summer, drying them, and grinding them finely; we use a coffee grinder. Filé is used in Louisiana Creole cooking as a spice and a thickener, commonly in gumbo.

Filé powder made from dried and ground sassafras leaves

1 comment:

Kristina said...

This is interesting. I don't think I have ever seen this grow in our area.