In the Virginia Colony of the 17th century, Sassafras was one of the major exported commodities to England. The wood was prized for it’s beauty and durability and the roots had many medicinal uses. Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to export it in 1602 and it was almost as popular as American tobacco well into the 1700s.
Sassafras grows primarily in the Eastern United States, from Canada to Florida. As a boy in Kentucky I was never walking in the woods without a Sassafras twig in my mouth to chew on. The unique aromatic flavor of root beer in a tooth pick. I could quickly identify the large green leaves and green stem of the plentiful Sassafras trees that grew along roadsides and trails.
Sassafras is unique in having 4 distinct leaf patterns on the same tree. I have always referred to them as a standard oval leaf, right mitten, left mitten and double mittens. In the picture on the left you can see the variation on leaves. Sassafras trees can grow very large, but you will normally only see trees in the 4 to 15 foot range in the woods. They seem to sprout up at the edges, along fences, trails and roads.
The small growing stems can be identified by the green color, even in winter when the leaves are gone. A quick snap of one of these green stems and the smell of the root beer will quickly assure you that you have a sassafras tree.
As a boy I helped my Grandma dig up small Sassafras trees for the roots. She would quickly brew up a batch of tea when someone came down with a cold or flu on the farm. I do not remember if it helped me with the illness, but I loved the aromatic hot tea on a cold Kentucky day.
I have lots of Sassafras trees in the 40 acre woods, and I still enjoy a hot cup of Sassafras tea. I usually pick out a small tree around 3 or 4 feet tall to dig up for the root. Dig deep, the Sassafras has a long fat tap root that you want to get.
I usually cut it into manageable chunks and let it dry. Do not put it in an air tight container or plastic bag until you are sure it is completely dry. Mold will quickly ruin your root if it is still wet.
Sassafras extract was the main flavoring for root beer and sarsaparilla before being replaced by artificial flavors. The wood and leaves are prized for fire starting because of its natural oils. The leaves can be ground into a spice called filé powder, an ingredient used as a thickener in some types of gumbo. Sassafras is an amazing tree.
The sassafras wood has been used in the manufacture of furniture, barrels, kitchen cabinets and it is a preferred wood used in boat building and fence posts. It is also my preferred twig to chew on.
At the 40 acre woods, the deer browse on the tasty leaves. Quail and turkeys love the small blue-black berry shaped fruit. The birds spread Sassafras seeds along with a fertilizer deposit all around the 40 acre woods to make sure I never run out of trees.
You can find me at the campfire, with a hot cup of Sassafras tea. Thats how it’s done at the 40 acre woods.