Sunday, November 27, 2011


We like to make many herbal teas, or tisanes, from the wild foraged plants we find. One of Robert and Gillian's favorite is sassafras tea, which is actually a boiled decoction made from the roots. The flavor is similar to root beer, and tastes good liberally sweetened with honey.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a native American deciduous tree that grows primarily on the east coast from Maine to Florida, and partially into the plains to Iowa. It is very abundant here in Connecticut, and easy to forage in large quantities. It likes wet soil and is found in old fields, along field edges, and in urban parks. It spreads by producing roots and sapling clones underground, so one mature tree will be surrounded by hundreds of small saplings. The tree is easy to identify in the winter by looking for these many saplings surrounding the mother tree. The bark is green on the small saplings, but as the trees get larger you can see the reddish coloring between the furrows of the grey bark.

flowers and new leaves
In the spring, sassafras produces tiny, yellow five-petalled flowers as the new leaves unfurl. There are three distinct leaf shapes growing on the sassafras tree- an oval, a mitten-shaped leaf, and a triple-lobed leaf. In the summertime, sassafras will produce hard, black berries on a red, cup-shaped stem that birds like to eat. The berries are not abundant, and we rarely ever see them. Late in autumn, the sassafras leaves turn into a lovely rainbow of red, orange and yellow before falling.

Filé powder
Two parts that we use are the dried and powdered leaves, and the roots. To use the leaves, pick them when green and dry them in a dark place. Robert then powders them in the coffee grinder to make filé powder, used to thicken stews like gumbo. Filé powder should not be boiled, but stirred into a stew at the end.

cross-section of root
To gather the roots, we look for the many saplings that are about 2 feet tall. Robert will grasp the bottom of the sapling where it meets the ground and give the tree a slow, gentle pull. The root is brittle and often breaks, but sometimes he gets a few feet at a time. We then wash the roots to remove the dirt, and slice up the smaller roots, and shave off the outer layer of any thicker roots. The cleaned roots are very aromatic, and can now be dried or used fresh. We boil the roots in water for about 20 minutes to make a reddish-brown decoction that can be sweetened and drunk hot or cold. We have used a strong root decoction to make jelly and syrup, and Robert is fermenting a spicy beer with sassafras and spicebush berries right now. Sassafras is an abundant and favorite wild food for us.

I will mention the USDA warnings about a compound in sassafras, safrole, which is considered a potential carcinogen in massive quantities. Safrole is also used in the manufacture of MDMA. We are not that concerned, as we do not consume huge amounts of sassafras. Native Americans used the decoction of the roots as a blood purifier. Sassafras oil is used to scent cosmetics and in aromatherapy.


Foxglove Lane said...

Never heard of it or saw it before. I love the idea of using what is native and all around us. Found this post fascinating and good on ye for making such great use of it:~)

Kristina said...

Interesting. I don't know if we have that in our area or not.

Angelyn said...

I made some sassafras tea this year for the first time - after reading about it for years. Delicious. I still have a few dried roots saved for another small batch of tea later in the winter.

Ellen Zachos said...

Thanks for defending the noble Sassafras. I, too, drink the root tea and love its unique flavor.

The 3 Foragers said...

We made some mild sassafras beer too, very good flavor. The color turned out to be an odd orange!

Daein said...

I love these plants. To make root beer with it I grind up the roots and extract them in warm vodka. The flavor in Sassafras is not soluble in water, but it is in alcohol. So it makes powerful root beer extract. Then a mix a small amount of the extract with maple syrup and add it to seltzer water to taste. The cleaner the flavor of the vodka the better. Since you don't want it adding taste. If you don't want the alcohol in it you can let it stand in a dish for a day or two and the alcohol will evaporate away.

I found when you try and get the flavor out by boiling you actually boil much of the flavor away since it's a volatile oil.

You can also extract a citrusy-liquoricy like flavor from the shoots leaves and twigs using vodka as well. It has to be cold vodka though and the extraction takes a week or so. If you extract it quickly with warm or hot vodka it gets a spinachy flavor. The resulting extract is always very syrupy because how mucilaginous the green parts of the plant are.

Unknown said...

Me and my Grandfather use to get the roots from these fine plants in the fall, when the sap is slowing down..we make tea with em...This was back in the 70's and around Savannah Ga, and into Hardyville SC...RIP Granddad I miss you.

Unknown said...

This plant grows in alot of places..Im in Long Island NY now..and it grows alot here, in the middle of the island..I use to live in Savannah Ga..and it was Everywhere...