|Rainer loves the fresh scent of sassafras root|
As the weather turns cold and the plants begin to withdraw their energy into the earth my thought turn to harvesting the medicinal roots for medicine making during to dark winter months. After the first couple frosts, but before the ground freezes is the ideal time to dig most root medicines, though many can be dug the whole year round (dandelion). This week, my boys and I went out to gather sassafras root from the stands of trees not far from our earthspace.
|mid-November goldenrod blooms|
Most times of the year we identify sassafras by it's unique leaf shape...actually three shapes. Sassafras leaves look like mittens, I tell my boys, with either no thumbs, one thumb, or two thumbs! But this time of year the trees have virtually no leaves remaining on the trees. So we look for the distinctive shape of the tree branches, with their plump buds, and the green bark on the trunks. We scratch the bark to inhale the cinnamony smell that tells us, yes this is it.
|the green bark of young sassafras|
Since it is the roots we are after, we will have to dig up some of the plants. Whenever I do this, I am always careful make sure there are plenty of plants in the area I am harvesting from so the populations remain healthy. Sassafras however, is easy to harvest without endangering the plant. Most of the smaller trees in a grove are suckers of the bigger ones, and since they are connected horizontally under the ground, some folks are able to simply dig between two trees and gather the horizontal section of the connecting root. I usually look for young trees among the older ones, and use my trowel to loosen the soil up enough to simply pull up the tree along with six inches or so of the root. In this way I am simply thinning the patch, which remains healthy. Thanks are given for these gifts from our mother before we harvest. Then we gather only what we need, and return home with our treasure.
|Rainer and Alden spotted dandelions in bloom and seed|
Sassafras has also been known to slow the flow of breast milk though, so nursing mothers should probably avoid it.
Oh, and it tastes good too!
However, if you want to enjoy whole, unprocessed sassafras tea, you will have to make it yourself. Currently, sassafras is illegal to sell for internal use. This is because safrole, an alkaloid present in sassafras, was found to be carcinogenic in lab rats who were injected with large quantities of isolated safrole back in the 1970's. However, no human case of cancer has ever been reported and it also turns out that safrole is not water soluble (so it is not extracted into the tea). Everyone needs to make their own decisions about such cases. For myself, I find the evidence of countless generations of sassafras users who found only health giving properties from this plant more valuable and convincing than the reductionist laboratory data of unnatural animal torture, but that's just my feelings. I tend to agree with herbalist and storyteller, Doug Elliott, when he says, "I plan on drinking the tea (moderately, of course) at least until the age of 102, at which point I might reconsider the issue." (From his book Wild Roots)
|freshly harvested sassafras roots ready for decocting|
To make a tea from sassafras roots, simmer them for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and allow them to steep another 30 minutes. The tea will turn for orange to red. Sassafras is great combined with other roots, like dandelion, burdock, yellowdock, and ginger, or with warming spices like anise and cardamom.
Sassafras has long been a people's medicine, relied on by the root doctors and folk healers of old. Today it continues to grow around us, waiting for us to remember its gifts.
We'll be looking at sassafras, as well as many other roots in this Sunday's Digging the Medicine class.
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