Sassafras, An Illegal Substance That Grows Wild In Our Back Yards

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Sassafras Tree

Sassafras Leaf (Saplings)
Sassafras albidum Saplings (Photo By sesamehoneytart/Wikimedia)

Sassafras is the primary ingredient in traditional root beer as well as being used in the production of MDMA(ecstasy) and MDA. Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) is a very common native plant in the Eastern United States. It is often seen in clumps of weedy saplings, but as sassafrases mature they can grow to be large trees. There are lots of controversies and conspiracy theories relating to Sassafras and its active compound safrole. Sassafras is an ancient healing plant for eastern native american tribes. It is also the characteristic flavoring of traditional root beer. So why has our government made it illegal to sell safrole? Click hear to learn about the History and controversy around Sassafras.

Sassafras Uses – Edibility and Culinary

Sassafras albidum root beer
Sassafras root beer

Sassafras Root

Sassafrases are known for their fragrance and flavor. The root and stems have uniquely different fragrances and flavors. The roots have the smell of root beer since they were one of the primary plants used in making traditional root beer. The stems have a slightly more citric smell. Safrole is the component in the plant that gives it it’s unique fragrance and flavor. The roots or stems are boiled to extract the safrole into the liquid, this liquid is then used in small amounts to add flavor to drinks such as tea and root beer. Safrole by itself is very bitter so sweeteners are often used to balance the flavor.

Sassafras Fruit

The Sassafras plant does produce small black sassafras fruit that also may be used as a flavoring but are very bitter and astringent if eaten without diluting them.

Sassafras Leaves

The plant’s leaves have a mucilaginous texture and can be used raw or cooked in salads or eaten right off the plant, unlike the berries, the leaves have a mild pleasant taste.

Sassafras Bark

The bark is different on the trunk vs on the root.  Trunk bark has a different flavor then root bark and is used less often. To test this yourself you can scratch and sniff the trunk vs the root bark and you will notice a different fragrance.

Sassafras Drug

The safrole in sassafras can be used to make sassafras drugs such as MDMA(ecstasy) and MDA. These drugs have a long history of use as psychoactive drugs. The term sassafras drug is correctly applied to either of these drugs, more commonly MDA but it is also often incorrectly used to describe any number of drugs particularly including mixures with MDMA and/or MDA. The effects of these drugs vary but generally include mental and emotional stimulation such as increased empathy towards others, also one of the most profound effects is sensory stimulation. Sassafras drugs have also been used to help in cases of anxiety and PTSD. Sassafras drug has a long list of negative and potentially very dangerous side effects as well.  The negative side effects have lead to both MDMA and MDA being classified as illegal class A substances in the U.S.

Sassafras Uses – Health Benefits

Sassafras Tea Benefits

Sassafras has a history of being a medicine with many uses. Primarily it is been used as a tonic and blood purifier. A tonic is a mild stimulant know to improve general health and mood over time. As a blood purifier Sassafras may help the body to speed up its rate of blood detoxification. Contrary to The tests done in the 1950s there is some evidence that Safrole may actually help to protect against cancer in humans since closely related compounds are known to do so.

Sassafras Root Beer

Sassafras Root
Sassafras Root, preparing to boil, just needs water

Sassafras is the primary flavor of traditional root beer. The other components vary, but generally include sugar and molasses, plus cloves, cinnamon and allspice. Allspice can be replaced by spicebush berries if your looking for more forageable ingredients. The first step to making sassafras root beer is to choose the right size sapplings.  First and most importantly learn to identify sassafras correctly by smell and leaf shape. Sassafras root itself has a unique smell which is different from other parts of the plant. Choose saplings with 1/2″ – 1″ diameter sassafras roots, this size is good because it can be harvested relatively easily and contains a slightly denser concentration of safrole. Uproot the entire plant then wash and cut up the sassafras roots into 1/2″ – 1″ chunks(try to break up the chunks a little to allow access to the interior parts). Boil these pieces in water for about 15 minutes at which point you will notice a change in water color.  Now you have the concentrated sassafras root tea you can dilute it with water and add it to the other ingredients in a pitcher or keep the components separate and make a different mixture per glass.  Try out different proportions until you find the best  recipe for your tastes. To make it a fizzy sassafras root soda make sure you add the sugar and some bakers yeast and let it ferment for a day or 2 in a closed container such as a 2 liter soda bottle with the cap on. Sassafras tea is included in our forageable tea index. Here is an easy recipe for Bubbly Sassafras Root Beer using seltzer water.

Sassafras Cautions

Besides for the dangerous side effects of Sassafras drugs a government study showed that safrole may be carcinogenic. Although this is doubtful to be true when consuming reasonable amounts of the plant, if the plant is consumed in extremely large quantity for long periods of time it could be carcinogenic. If large amounts of the concentrated oil from the plant is consumed it could lead to acute poisoning which may seriously damage the kidney and liver. You can learn more about the symptoms of kidney and liver damage at CPOE.org.

Key ID Features – Look for the distinguished sassafras leaf

Sassafras leaf example
Sassafras leaf example (photo by Rlevse/Wikimedia)

Sassafras is a deciduous tree that is often seen in groups of saplings but single trees can get to be up to 85’ tall. This plant has a couple very good identification features: the first one is that a sassafras leaf can have 1,2, or 3 lobes all on the same plant. Younger plants often have more 2-3 lobed leaves than older plants. On mature trees it may be hard to spot 2-3 lobed leaves. The second great identification feature is the smell. Scratch and sniff the roots and branches, you will notice similar but distinct fragrances. Both fragrances are strong, the roots smell somewhat like root beer and the stems are slightly more citric smelling. This makes Winter identification possible. You can purchase a live sassafras sapling HERE for planting, this will ensure correct identification.

Conclusion

Sassafras is a very unique plant, not many plants have such a strong, useful fragrance and ability to add such a great flavor. It is abundant and can be identified in the winter. It has an ancient history of health benefits and a controversial modern history making this plant even more attractive to learn about and appreciate. If you live in the Eastern United States, find a Sassafras tree and experience a flavorful medicinal plant that our culture has been lacking for the last 50 years.

Read our Article on: Safe Foraging


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19 comments on “Sassafras, An Illegal Substance That Grows Wild In Our Back Yards

  • I had been eating and drinking Sassafras all my life as a Child. Walking threw the woods I would grab a a young tree pull up the root knock off the dirt rub the rest off and start chewing it the root itself….. I would pull up the trees collect them in brown paper bags take the roots home too boil as a Tea. Very Good Very tasty. I had a Friend how was diagnosed with Cancer and she Could not hold anything down I went to the woods gotten her a Bunch of Sassafras root had her chew the root and it eased her stupid pains told to continue to chew when she had pain she did and the pains would go away she is now in remission. …..
    sad part is I now live on the Gulf Coast and can not find it Very Saddening for Me…..

    Reply
    • I had been eating and drinking Sassafras all my life as a Child. Walking threw the woods I would grab a a young tree pull up the root knock off the dirt rub the rest off and start chewing it the root itself….. I would pull up the trees collect them in brown paper bags take the roots home too boil as a Tea. Very Good Very tasty. I had a Friend how was diagnosed with Cancer and she Could not hold anything down I went to the woods gotten her a Bunch of Sassafras root had her chew the root and it eased her pains told to continue to chew when she had pain she did and the pains would go away she is now in remission. …..
      sad part is I now live on the Gulf Coast and can not find it Very Saddening for Me…..

      Reply
      • My father grew up in Renovo, Pa. As a child he would harvest Sassyfras. That is what he called it.During the great depression food in coal regions of Pa , food was scarce. Sassyfras helped to stave off hunger.

        Reply
    • Teri Thompson says:

      Is there no way to obtain sassafras root? My mom use to always fix sassafras tea for me when I would have one of my coughing spells. My uncle would always bring some up from the southern part of the state but he has passed.

      Reply
    • I live on the gulf coast and my yard is surrounded by sassafras…..i think most places in city limits have eradicated it,my house was built in the 1930’s and i am the third occupant,so i have a lot of old trees and shrubs,sassafras grows like a weed by the way,,,,fast and regular

      Reply
  • I heard that sassafras was illegal from a friend but didn’t really understand. So I googled for “what is sassafras” and found your blog. It’s so interesting that it has so many uses from using the sassafras root to make sassafras root beer, and sassafras’s role as a blood purifier. Really interesting article!

    Reply
  • I have this shrub everywhere on my property and was curious what it was, Now I know!! Thank you so much for your article and helpful information about this very intriging and unique shrub.

    Reply
    • It is not a shrub. It is a tree that can grow very large, up to 100+ feet. It usually grows in small clusters.
      It was and sometimes still is used to make furniture.

      Reply
  • Don joseph says:

    I find it interesting that you make no mention that dry sassafras leaves are used to make file powder. File powder is a seasoning commonly used in Cajun and Creole style recipes such as Gumbos.

    Reply
  • My little dog has been eating these weeds for a few years now. He loves them and hunts especially for them. I have not been able to identify them until now when I have discovered they are a form of Sassafras. I am very happy to find out it isn’t something that will harm him. I think I will try making some tea out of some of the leaves.

    Reply
  • The leaves are edible when they’re very young and still light green. Dried and ground into a powder called filé, you add them to soups after the soup is done, to make gumbo. You can also purée the fresh leaves with soup stock in a blender, and add that to the finished soup for the same result.

    The root cambium, the white layer between the bark and the hard, inner wood, is an incredible culinary seasoning, like a combination of cinnamon, anise, and root beer.

    Reply
  • I find the berries to be pleasant. Not astringent or bitter, but nicely aromatic. Maybe it’s the growing conditions of the trees, from which we eat. We are making our first sassafrass fruit extract this fall. Harvested them with my daughter last night. We are including the beautiful, swollen red predicles. Those parts intuitively seem like good balance to the midnight black fruit. Not sure whether to crush the seed and include them. Probably not, since the tree intends for them to be passed through the gi tract unharmed. Any tips on extraction process would be appreciated. I’m thinking a standard alcohol tincture with 50% grain alcohol. They are much more tender and yin than the tough root, which requires boiling. Perhaps even a cold water, sun drenched infusion?

    Reply
  • Cheryl Hughes says:

    I have a whole fence a row of sassafras. I’m 5’10” and they’re alot taller than I am. Their leaves are the first to change a nice red color. Signals falls on the way !

    Reply
  • Acorns provide food for various wildlife, or they would otherwise litter the forest floor and rot since they are too heavy to disperse via wind. … Only one type of tree produces an acorn, but …

    Reply
  • Our abundant sassafras trees are all dying off. Invasive vine, mock bittersweet is strangling them and there seems to be some sort of (parasitic?) disease harming them. Yesterday we had to pull down one that was going to fall in the driveway. It had the first leaves/blossoms on the twig ends. It smelled so good that I ‘harvested’ all of those twigs and stuck them in a glass jar with water. Are those first spring green parts also edible?

    Reply
    • I eat the green shoots and leaves with no noticeable negative side effects. Sometimes the flavor can be a bit too strong and bitter depending on what part you eat. I never have any trouble with the taste of the fresh leaves.

      Reply

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