Sassafras Tea, the Original Hillbilly Tonic

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.

Let the root dry out and give it a good scrubbing with water to get off the dirt. The exterior of the root has the most oils and flavor, so try not to strip it clean.

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.

To make the tea, I put a few chunks in a small pan and bring to a boil, then I let it simmer for another 30 minutes.  Serve hot with a little honey for sweetener.

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.

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17 Responses to Sassafras Tea, the Original Hillbilly Tonic

  1. AK says:

    Sassafrass tea ,my Grandpa made it every spring ,said it would thin our blood for summer so we would’nt feel so hot !
    Not sure about that claim but it always tasted good .

  2. PKal says:

    Great product placement shot of the GW Honey!

  3. boxerbob says:

    have some on my property also can’t wait to try it

  4. Bela says:

    Is the fruit any good for human consumption?

  5. Christine says:

    Just ran across your post. It is great. I’m not fond of it myself but my husband and 5 of my grandchildren love it. We live in Oklahoma now but dug up a few last fall at home in Arkansas to bring to Oklahoma with us. And yes it does help with a cold and flu. All my hillbilly family from the Ozarks in Arkansas us it.

  6. Georgia says:

    Does digging up the root kill the tree? And how deep do u dig?

    • Brian says:

      Digging kills the tree, I dig small saplings that come up, about 4 or 5 feet tall. Need to dig about a foot down to get a good area around the root to pull it out.

  7. Mrs. Sybil Usry says:

    I love Sassafras tea. Our family used to drink it when I was younger. It is so good. I’ll have to try making powder out of the leaves. There’s several trees on our property and in the woods around us. The only drawback is having to kill the little tree to make tea for my family. We make sure that plenty trees are left. Most people don’t know about this wonderful tree and all it’s benefits.

  8. Kathleen says:

    The root always smells like camphor to me

  9. Arlene says:

    Does sassafras grow in NE Oklahoma? My Grandma would keep a kettle if it going on the back of the stove. I love it!!

  10. Jennifer says:

    This brings back many memories of cold nights and this wonderful tea, or hot summer days and ice cold homade rootbeer. Thanks for the memories.

  11. Elizabeth Herring says:

    I would love to try sassafras tea! Would it grow up here in washington state?

  12. Terry says:

    Great write up, thank you.
    I thought folks are taking side roots and not digging the whole tree, are you saying that only the tap root is usable? Are folks wasting their time drinking tea made from the small roots? Thinking Wow do I throw out this bag of small roots that Aunti Glo sent us?! Hmmmmm off to do own research!
    Thanks again

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