My mother was a great sassafras drinker. And every spring we had to have sassafras along with our poke salad (that was a wild green). The mountain people particularly gathered a lot of wild greens to supplement their diet, because most people back in those days lived mostly on cornbread and peas. My mother used to enjoy going into the mountains and picking the wild greens. They have a thing called (and I like it today—they cultivate it, by the way, in Tennessee and Virginia) highland creeces. Oldtimers called them creecy-greens.
born Resaca, GA 1911
February 3, 1976 interview
Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
To some Appalachian farmers, it was simply an aggressive weed tree cluttering old fields. Others believed its wood could prevent chicken lice, and so used it to build chicken houses and chicken roosts. But sassafras’ most famous attribute has always been the healing properties of the springtime tea –a spring tonic- made from its roots.
The Cherokee people utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague (the tree is sometimes called an ‘Ague Tree’). “The country people of Carolina crop these vines (Bigonia Crucigera) to pieces,” said William Bartram in Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, “together with china brier and sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices.” The Cherokee would also make a poultice to cleanse wounds and sores, while they’d steep the root bark to treatment diarrhea or for ‘over-fatness.’
They emphasized that the tea should never be taken for more than a week at a time. They didn’t know about safrole, though they knew its long term effects. The bark of sassafras roots contains volatile oils, 80% of which is safrole. Commercially produced sassafras was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s after experiments showed that safrole caused liver cancer in rats and mice.
Early white mountain settlers, perhaps influenced by the vine/brier/sassafras concoction described above, made a beer by boiling young sassafras shoots in water, adding molasses and allowing the mash to ferment.
The varied leaf shapes are the Mitten Tree’s trademark—in fact, its Latin name was once Sassafras Varifolium. Today Sassafras Albidum ranges widely over the eastern United States (only two other species of sassafras exist elsewhere in the world: one in central mainland China, one in Taiwan).
‘White sassafras’ grows along roadways in thick clusters, usually from three to six feet tall. It has roughly the same characteristics as ‘red sassafras,’ however the bark does not turn pink to red when the root is damaged.
The red variety is the species that is most prized. Generally found on hills and ridges, it sometimes grows in mountainous areas to a height of thirty or more feet. The American Forestry Association’s National Register of Big Trees lists a 77-foot champion in Owensboro, KY.
According to H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (1936), the word sassafras traces back to 1577 and is of Spanish origin, probably deriving from the Spanish term for saxifrage.
Native Americans in Virginia pointed out ‘wynauk’ to British settlers, and in 1603, a company was formed in Bristol, England to send two vessels to the New World, principally with the intention of bringing back cargoes of sassafras bark. Thus, sassafras was one of the first, if not the first, forest products to be exported from what is now the mid-Atlantic states.
sources: Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, by William Bartram, 1789, From “Transaction of the American Ethnological Society,” Vol. 3 Pt. 1. Extracts
The singular sassafras, by Henry Clepper, from “American Forests,” American Forestry Assn 1989