Sunday, February 19, 2012
Sassafras- Bark Medicine
Sarah Jean Head, of Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife, chose the theme of Bark Medicine for this months UK Herbarium blog party she is hosting. When I think of bark medicine, the first tree that comes to mind is sassafras! Sassafras is our localities spring tonic. Every April, in the small town of Ellisville, there is even a Sassafras Festival. The event is hosted in the old Opera House by one of the local civic groups, HERO. Every year my husband, brother Eric and I go and belly up for some free sassafras tea and a nice dinner, they also have. Most of the folks we are seated at long tables with are older farmer and country types and most probably have never thought about constituents or any other term herbalists use when talking about plant medicine. They just know it is a tradition handed down through all our generations, and one we learned from the local Native Americans, to in the spring, dig some Sassafras root, and brew up some of this spicy, blood moving, blood purifying root bark tea! It actually is a decoction, as we do put the root in a pan with water and slow simmered. I think it tastes best done at a slow simmer, keeps it sweeter, than at a strong boil, which can make it a bit bitter. It turns a nice red color and can be sweetened with a little honey or sugar and be drunk hot or cold. You can use the same bark/roots several times before they loose their flavor. Just let them dry out again or pop them in the freezer till next use.
Sassafras, Sassafras albidum is the type I am referring to in this post. There are two other types in other parts of the world. In North America, it grows in Ontario, Canada, and in the US, from Maine west to Michigan and all the states south of those states clear down to Texas and Florida. Identifying Sassafras is so easy as its scent gives it away! One of its names is Cinnamon Wood and it has been credited with having been an aid in the discovery of America! The story goes that Christopher Columbus was able to persuade his mutinous crew that land was near, by drawing their attention to the smell of sassafras fragrance on the breeze! ( “Trees and Shrubs of Massachus, 1894”). Other identifying features are its leaves. The are bright green above and downy beneath, and often three-lobed, unlobed or mitten shaped lobed! In the fall they are beautiful, ranging from red, to yellow, to pinkish even. The flowers, in early spring are sweet smelling and delicately colored a yellow green. The fruit is tiny dark purple on a red stalk. Sassafras is usually a small to medium tree about 40 foot tall, (although there are some which grow to upwards of 100 foot in other locals). It has stout, contorted spread branches. It spreads by root suckers and often forms thickets with domed crowns. The easiest way to harvest it is to dig down between two trees and take some of the root that is suckering between them. Although, sassafras is very tenacious and old farmers say if you pull up one sapling, unless you grub out every bit of root, two will grow back for each one you take! I usually find it as an understory tree in the woods or along fence rows.
The bark on mature trees is rough, and deeply furrowed. The saplings are reddish or greenish. That might sound like lots of different tree barks, but it is the smell that really distinguishes it! In America, we associate the smell as a “root beer” smell and Sassafras was the basis for the first root beer drinks.
In the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons wrote that Europeans first learned of Sassafras from the Spaniards, and that sassafras is a Spanish name. The Spanish parts of America traded sassafras into England where it soon became a medicinal herb of great value and sold for a high price. John Brereton, who chronicled the 1602 trip aboard the sailing vessel Concord, with Bartholomew Gosnold, only lists the commodity price of one product that was shipped from America to England, and that was sassafras, which was selling for then handsome price of three shillings a pound!
Some common names are: Sassyfras, Ague Tree (ague is a malarial type of fever), Red Sassafras, Saxifrax, Saloop, Cinnamon Tree and Mitten Tree
Flavor – pungent
Temperature – warm
Moisture – moist
Element - fire
Physiological Effects: alterative ( improves general health usually through stimulating, cleansing and elimination), diuretic ( increases elimination of fluid build up from the tissues, increases urine flow, reduces fluid retention, and increases kidney circulation), tonic (rejuvenating, improves the strength and tone of tissues and increases functions of the body), aromatic (stimulating to the digestive system) , diaphoretic (promotes sweating), stimulant ( increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, makes you feel energized, more awake) , anodyne (relieves pain), antigalactagogue (reduces breast milk and engorgement), antirheumatic (relieves the pains, stiffness and aches of the musculo-skeletal system), antiseptic (prevents infection), emmenagogue (stimulates blood flow to the pelvic area and uterus), vasodilator (relaxes the smooth muscles in the blood vessels causing them to widen)
Taking sassafras tea deters infection, destroys pathogenic microorganisms, causes release of toxins through diaphoresis and improves circulation. It has been used in the treatment of arthritis, acne, carbuncles, boils, catarrh, colds, dysentery, diarrhea, eczema, flatulence, flu, fever, gout, gonorrhea, hypertension, herpes, nephritis, measles, rheumatism, psoriasis, shingles, scrofula, skin eruptions, syphilis, stomachache and erysipelas. It can be used effectively to help painful menstruation and for the after pains of childbirth. Interestingly, it can help sober up someone who has overindulged drinking alcohol also:)
Sassafras can be prepared as a poultice or an eye wash to relieve inflamed eyes. A poultice or linament is used for bruises, sciatica, sore muscles, swellings and rheumatism.
A wash of sassafras is helpful in treating poison oak/ivy or nettle rash.
The essential oil, diluted, can relieve toothache, when applied directly to the offending tooth , or can get rid of head lice or other skin parasites.
Herbalist Tommie Bass had this to say about sassafras
“ Most everybody knows about Sassafras tea. It’s perfectly easy to make. It’s the finest thing in the world for a blood tonic and to purify the blood… It’s highly recommended for a stomach tonic. I don’t think there’s anything that can beat it. It makes a good wash for the Poison Ivy and Oak. You can wash an animal in a strong tea of the roots and it will get the fleas off. “
He suggested Yellow Dock, Sarsaparilla, and Burdock as plants to use with Sassafras.
Taken hot, Sassafras tea will make you sweat, helping break a fever. Taken cold, Tommie said it will flush your liver of accumulated toxins.
Sassafras is also credited with helping you slim down, as reflected by this old song:
I got so thin on sass’frus tea
I could hide behind a straw,
Indeed I was a different man
When I left Arkansas.
Other folk remedy ways I have heard of for using sassafras is to pulverize sassafras bark with slippery elm bark, equals parts and put in a pan with enough water to cover it and be absorbed. Put it in a gauze bag and apply to spider or insect bites.
Myself, I have used Sassafras root bark to help dissolve kidney stones. My son in law used to have terrible troubles, almost yearly with this painful condition. After he and my daughter got together, he had a flare up and was in a great deal of pain. I had him sip on a combination tea of sassafras and marshmallow throughout the day, and he was able to easily pass the dissolved remaining stones. I asked him to sip on it for a couple more days to make sure he was cleared and he has been free of them to this day, and that was almost 4 years ago. Since then, I have had a couple of other folks try this same method, with good results each time. (disclaimer: I do not claim to be an herbalist or doctor! I am just sharing with you how I personally have used Sassafras with good results!)
Euell Gibbons suggested adding 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar to one quart of Sassafras Tea. Then chill it. I can tell you I do this now. It is delicious!
Sassafras Jelly (adapted from Euell’s recipe)
Dissolve 1 package of dried pectin ( I like Pomona’s Universal Pectin in jelly recipes using honey) in 2 cups of strong Sassafras tea. Bring just to a boil and then add 3 cups of good organic honey and then add a good handful of slivered Sassafras bark, peeled from the Sassafras root. Bring to a boil again, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Strain out the bark and pour the jelly into sterile jelly jars and process as usual. Alternatively, you can add 2 tablespoons of finely grated dried root bark of sassafras to the jelly and not strain it. (This is especially yummy on cinnamon toast!)
The dried and powdered leaves are used extensively in Creole cooking and is called file.
Handy non edible or medicinal uses for Sassafras:
A bag of Sassafras can be put in a with stored clothes to help deter moth damage. It is said that chickens that are allowed to roost on boards or poles made from the Sassafras tree, don’t suffer from mites.
The wood is is durable, hardwood, which doesn’t shrink much so has been prized for flooring, small boats and fences.
The essential oil (minus the safrole) of the root bark is sometimes added as a flavoring agent or aromatic to toothpastes, gums, beers, perfumes, and mouthwashes.
Folks who are advised not to use Sassafras would be those on blood thinners, blood pressure medicines, pregnant, and nursing moms (unless you are trying to dry your milk up) . I know when I was going through menopause, hot Sassafras was no friend to my hot flashes:) Do your own research and remember, everything in moderation.
The Food and Drug Association banned the use of sassafras in mass produced foods and drugs (it was used to flavor many drugs also), unless the safrole , one of the components of sassafras , is removed. IN the 1960’s there were some animal testings done where the poor critters were fed large doses of the isolate safrole, not with whole bark sassafras, and they developed liver damage and cancers. Later studies found that the cause of the cancer was not safrole itself, but liver enzymes acting on it, and in human studies it did not have the same effect. Leave it to a bunch of animal testers to give a skewed result, especially interesting in this instance, as the Cherokees actually used sassafras to help cure liver cancer!I like this bit I found in my Peterson Field Guide by James Duke and Steven Foster, “ Safrole found in oil of Sassafras reportedly is carcinogenic; it is banned by the FDA. However, the safrole in a 12 ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer.”
And leave it to unsavory street drug manufacturers to also muck up a good herbals reputation…large doses of Sassafras may have a narcotic effect, so apparently using this tidbit of info MDMA and Ecstasy, were originally synthesized from sassafras :(
I can’t end this post on such a sour note, so I want to include a few more recipes and some humor!
Take a look at this site, Southern Humorists, for a few more recipes and a laugh or two:)
And this recipe for homemade root beer will be sure to add a smile to anyone’s face!
Hugs to all who visit Comfrey Cottages xxx
book resources used:
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine by Brigitte Mars, AHG
Mountain Medicine: The Herbal Remedies of Tommie Bass by Darryl Patton
Tommie Bass… Herb Doctor of Shinbone Ridge by Darryl Patton
Indian Herbology of North America by Alma Hutchens
The Old Herb Doctor by Joseph Meyer
Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, a Peterson Field Guide by Steven Foster and James Duke