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How to Harvest and Use Sassafras

Cynthia is a gardening enthusiast. She has a green thumb and always plants a variety of items for harvesting during gardening season.

How to Prepare and Harvest Sassafras

How to Prepare and Harvest Sassafras

Sassafras is a key ingredient in spring tonics. It can also be made into a stand alone sassafras tea. I was excited to join some friends during their recent sassafras harvest in order to obtain pictures to go with my article and share in the bounty of the harvest as well. I wish more people would share their harvests and experience with each other. We are never too old to learn something new and useful!

Harvesting sassafras can be a bit labor intensive at times, and take a fair amount of physical strength. That's something to keep in mind before you decide to venture out and harvest. Sassafras can be used for many medicinal purposes and home remedies. Sassafras was once a key ingredient in file' Gumbo, and still a sought after ingredient for spring tonics or making tea.

Sassafras is a great choice when looking to add to your arsenal of home remedies and holistic medicines. Though sassafras is considered an alternative natural medicine in current society, it was widely used for thousands of years prior to the pharmaceutical industry that we are accustomed to today.

In this article I walk you through:

  • Historic Medicinal Uses
  • How to Harvest Sassafras
  • How to Make Sassafras Tea
  • Drying and Storing Sassafras Roots

The Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

If you know any "old timers," Native Americans (specifically Choctaw Natives), or mountain folk, I am sure you have heard of some of the medicinal uses for sassafras. Just in case you haven't, here are a few examples:

  • Fever reducer
  • Eye Inflammation
  • Menstruation
  • Parturition pain
  • Rheumatism
  • Gout
  • Dropsy
  • Anticoagulant

Sassafras is known to reduce fevers, relieve eye inflammation, ease symptoms of menstruation, help with parturition pain (childbirth), soothe rheumatism, gout and even dropsy. In the past, it was commonly used as a cure for scurvy and to help alleviate many skin irritations and conditions.

In addition Sassafras also has anticoagulant properties and has been used as a blood thinner, a blood purifier, or for those suffering with blood clots. Sassafras is supposed to be effective in treating chronic and excess mucus discharge and has also been recommended as a solution for gonorrhea and syphilis. Sassafras was even prescribed for "melancholy";

Take two handfuls of milfoil or yarrow, one dram of root of elecampane, and the same amount of sassafras, and steep them as you would tea. Drink this and continue the use of it. It is excellent. - Notes on Folk Medicine, Wilson

Historically, Sassafras was used a spring tonic to thin the blood to prepare for the coming summer months, and to rejuvenate and cleanse the body.

How to Harvest Sassafras

For more potent roots, harvest in mid to late February or early March. This way the sap is still concentrated in the roots of the sassafras tree, providing you with a more potent root.

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Identifying Sassafras Trees

First of all, you will want to positively identify your sassafras trees. Since this is an end-of-winter or early-spring harvest, you will only be able to identify them by the bark. Here are some indicators that your tree is a sassafras tree:

  • Check out the stems of the branch; if a green, smooth portion of the branch abruptly transitions to a bark-covered branch, this is a sign the tree is a sassafras tree.
  • Scratch the green of the branch; if the branch smells a bit like an orange peel, it's likely sassafras.

Take a look at the photo I took of the bark for identification and watch the video below.

Sassafras Harvest

How much you want to harvest really depends on your needs and plans for the use of your sassafras. For my small family I took home a grocery store bag full. I intend to use it for tea and a spring tonic.

Here is a list of a few items you may need while harvesting:

  1. Shovel
  2. Pruning shears
  3. Gloves
  4. Cutting tool
  5. Bucket of water

You can start digging with a shovel if you prefer; we did some that way. Alternatively, you can use a four-wheeler and give the small trees a little shove to help lift the root ball up for harvesting.

Keep in mind that should do this on a day when it is warm enough that the ground is not frozen. If the ground is frozen you will not manage much of a harvest, as the ground will be rock-solid hard and fighting you the entire time! Although it is technically spring, it has not been that long since we had our last snow!

Either way, you will need to ensure that you are collecting the sassafras roots, even the small ones. Often, this will mean getting your hands a little dirty. Shoving the tree over will more than likely cause some breakage at the roots. Bear in mind to only harvest what you need and to leave a good number of roots in tact so the tree will continue to grow.

The sassafras roots maybe different colors; some may be red, some may be white. You will know you have the right tree for sure once you have broken a root, and well . . . sniffed it. You read correctly, the smell of a sassafras root is not a mistakable one. It will smell much like black licorice; remember it was once used to flavor candies!

Use pruning shears to clip the roots from the tree as well as dealing with any stubborn ones you just can't get out of the ground. If you run into some large roots that are too big for shears, break out a small hand saw.

The bucket of water can be very handy in "pre-rinsing" the roots. Getting as much dirt off while harvesting means less dirt going into your home!

Cleaning Sassafras

Now that you have harvested your Sassafras, it is time to clean it. Inevitably the roots will be very dirty, even if you took my advice and took a bucket of water with you while harvesting.

  1. Clean and sanitize your sink.
  2. Shake the Sassafras roots over a compost bin - preferably - or over a trash can to shake out as much loose dirt as you can.
  3. Then, put the roots in the sink and fill the sink with lukewarm water. As you can see in my photos I added just enough to cover the roots; no need to waste water.
  4. All you really need to clean the roots is a scrub brush and elbow grease. My brush is from the dollar store and works just fine. Simply scrub the roots with a brush to remove as much dirt as possible.
  5. Then, place your clean Sassafras roots into a large bowl or container. I used my stainless steel mixing bowl.

Now that most of the hard work is done, give yourself a pat on the back! Do not get too complacent though, we still have some work ahead.

How to Make Sassafras Tea

How to Make Sassafras Tea

Preparing Roots for Tea

Now that you have harvested and cleaned your sassafras roots, we can move on to the next step. If you choose to remove the bark, you can, although there is as much flavor in the bark as well as the roots.

You will now need pruning shears or another sharp cutting tool.

  • Cut your roots into 1" sections. I have seen other people do them in larger sections, but I want the most out of my root. Leaving them larger may leave much of the safrole oil in the root, rather than into the tea where we want it.
  • I start my tea when I have cut enough 1" pieces to toss in the pan with water. That way, it is working its magic while I am still cutting my roots.

Continue cutting until all the roots are in 1 inch pieces. This can prove to be a hard task; you may have to ask for some help. My fiancé had to do some of the larger ones as, I just did not have the strength in my hands to cut them.

There are many variations of sassafras tea, commonly called "spring tonic," which use sassafras along with dandelion and molasses and many other variants. This recipe is the most straightforward sassafras tea recipe and the one I use most frequently.

If you really want to release the oils, you can use a meat mallet or something similar to pound the roots before you put them into the water in the pot. I find that it is an unnecessary addition to the process, since we cut them down into small pieces.

There is a fair amount of tannic acid in the bark, so the tea can be bitter. I personally do not drink any sweet teas, or any sugary drinks for that matter. You can opt for honey to sweeten your tea or you can use sugar. Frankly, I am not a refined sugar fan.

Sassafras Tea Ingredients

  • 2 quarts water
  • 2 cups sassafras root, chopped
  • 1 saucepan
  • honey or sugar, optional

Sassafras Tea Instructions

  1. Put Sassafras roots into the water, then put it on the stove. This varies slightly from most tea making procedures. You need the root in prior to boiling the water to get all the safrole from the root.
  2. Turn stove on high.
  3. Bring the water to a boil. Once it has reached a rolling boil, turn the heat down to a simmer.
  4. Prepare to wait. Simmer the roots until you see that the water is a deep reddish color. Once you have achieved a deep dark red (oxblood) color, it is time to put a lid on your pot and turn off the heat. Allow the tea 10 minutes to steep with the lid on.
  5. Steeping tea is an essential step in any tea preparation. Allow your tea to steep for at least five minutes, but ten minutes is optimal. This allows the flavors to develop as the tea cools.
  6. Strain out the sassafras root using a colander first.
  7. Strain out the fine particles with a tea strainer. Cheese cloth would work as well.

Remember you may want to add honey or sugar, as it can be bitter and almost spicy. I always detect hints of a peppery aroma along with the licorice smell as it warms up.

Drying Sassafras for Long Term Storage

As with any root, you need to ensure that it is thoroughly dried in order to store for long term use.

Dehydrating or Oven Drying Your Sassafras Roots

A commercial or store-bought dehydrator works great for drying sassafras. If you do not have a dehydrator, there is no need to purchase one. You can set your oven to 120°F, place a cookie sheet with your roots in the oven, and dry them this way. Watch them closely to be sure you don't burn them, but also be sure the root is completely dried. Sassafras is susceptible to mold, and drying thoroughly is one way to prevent it.

How to Screen Dry Your Sassafras Roots

Another alternative drying method is screen drying. This will come in handy if you are living off the grid and do not want to use gas or electricity. Simple screens like the ones in your window are all that you need. You can prop these up on blocks, though only at the edges, as it is important for the air to flow all around the screens. Place these in a cool dark place; a barn or cellar will work.

Watch your sassafras roots closely. It could be days or weeks until they are completely dry. In general, depending on the type of roots, the size of roots, and their moisture content, it takes about 3–15 days for them to thoroughly dry with the screen method.

Dried roots will store for a year. They are best kept in an airtight container. An oxygen absorbent packet will prolong the life of dry goods as well. It is always best to store these in a cool dry place. Light can contribute to the spoilage of any stored foods if you are not careful.

There have been a few times that I missed harvesting my own sassafras. Lucky for me I found sassafras roots readily available online and have enjoyed making tea and tonic from them. I have used these in place of my own harvested roots for teas and spring tonic with great success. The roots are very potent, so they are definitely harvested at the optimum time. If harvesting your own sassafras seems labor intensive these are a great alternative, and you will still reap the health benefits.

Sources

Wilson, Charles Bundy. Notes on Folk-Medicine. The Journal of American Folklore, Jan. - Mar., 1908, Vol. 21, No. 80 (Jan. - Mar., 1908), pp. 68-73. American Folklore Society. https://www.jstor.org/stable/534533.

How Would You Rate the Sassafras Tea Recipe?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Cynthia Hoover

Comments

frogyfish from Central United States of America on May 20, 2020:

Enjoyed reading your hub about sassafrass as it is a very old friend of mine...haven't contacted it in many years now. I am going to have to see about finding some - have to be already made - tea. Thank you for an enjoyable hub here!

Carol on November 02, 2019:

I grew up on sassifrass tea.. My parents told me stories of how they would harvest the root. Then sold it so that the could pay the heat bill. Love just the smell of the bark when steeping!

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on January 27, 2016:

Moonlake thanks so much for the comment! I am glad you enjoyed Sassafras tea!

moonlake from America on January 27, 2016:

My Dad came for a visit from Arkansas. He brought some Sassafras roots with him and made me some tea. I liked it. I also like your hub.

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on January 27, 2016:

Don thank you so much! It is getting to be that time of year again! Though I will have to wait till all this snow melts before I attempt it! I really appreciate the pin and share! Thanks again!

Don Bobbitt from Ruskin Florida on January 27, 2016:

Really Great article. I shared it and Pinned it and I even read it twice because it is full of some really great hints and tips about Sassafras.

Thanks, DON

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on April 13, 2015:

Shades-of-truth I love it too! I just make my own :). I love being outside and playing in the dirt (still a kid at heart) so making my own is an excuse to play ;).

Emily Tack from USA on April 13, 2015:

I LOVE sassafras. I even have some of "Pappy's" sassafras tea here at my store. Ever since I was a small child, I have loved the taste of sassafras!

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on March 27, 2015:

Very true Marina7 you can buy the tea if you wish! It is a wonderfully refreshing flavor!

Marina from Clarksville TN on March 27, 2015:

I love the sassafras flavor. I don't know if we have sassafras trees in our neighborhood but if not I can always buy some tea.

Matthew A Easterbrook from Oregon on March 26, 2015:

Cynthia thank you for sharing your tea recipe. Also, for writing this very useful, interesting, beautiful sassafras photography, and awesome hub. I really enjoyed reading it.

Thanks,

Matt

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on March 25, 2015:

Thank you AliciaC! I have been playing with "roots" and herbs since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I hope to share many more old time traditions, teas, and tinctures once the plants are producing!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 25, 2015:

Thanks for sharing the interesting information, Cynthia. I've been interested in sassafras for some time. I enjoyed learning more about it very much.

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on March 25, 2015:

I should add that Sassafras is a great hardwood for those that use wood stoves for fireplaces to heat their homes. You can do both at the same time too, if you do not mind chopping wood in the winter or early spring. Once spring gets going the sap goes back up into the tree and you will not get much flavor or medicinal properties from it.

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on March 25, 2015:

Rachel you are right in a soda it will taste like root beer, I do not sweeten mine, so it is a bit weird. I have never been big on sugary drinks. No sugar in my coffee or any of my teas. I only drink coffee, tea, and water. Kind of weird being a southern girl and I do not drink sweet tea. I do make a great sweet tea for visitors and always found it funny that they rave about it (since I never taste it lol). I think it would remind me of a horehound candy if I did sweeten it (just a guess) with that slight root beer flavor. I appreciate the comment! I hope you have a blessed day!

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on March 25, 2015:

I have seen sassafras in the Amish country, they use it in soda. I thought it tasted like root beer. I didn't know it came from trees, that was interesting.

Blessings to you.

Cynthia Hoover (author) from Newton, West Virginia on March 24, 2015:

I would not be worried about stroke or internal bleeding. As a rule I would not consume more than a cup of tea. Sassafras has been used for ages, there really were not any studies done as to the effect of applications like tea. Tea is not concentrated safrole oil there is a difference in the two. The trees grow everywhere really, often found in wooded areas and forests.

crazymom3 on March 24, 2015:

I wouldn't know where to find a tree and what if you drink too much tea, can it cause s stroke or internal bleeding?

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