Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Harvesting Sassafras Root

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
It was almost hard to believe we were in November, as the day was so sunny and warm. As we passed colonies of flowering goldenrod, I had the thought that we were harvesting the wrong plants on this day. But with trowel in hand we admired the goldenrod and proceeded until we reached our destination.

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 long been considered a valuable folk medicine and was even one of the first cash crops out of North America to Europe (along with tobacco). It was extremely popular in Europe as a tonic and cure-all of sorts, and soon also became one of the relied on medicines for treating syphilis (also thought to be imported from the Americas), although extreme and rather ghastly mercury treatments were still the favorite method of doctors of the time. Traditionally, sassafras has been used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, venereal diseases, herpes, eczema, shingles, psoriasis, rashes, rheumatism, gout, arthritis, fever, lung problems, gas and colic. Among the many herbs classified as "blood cleansers", sassafras is described as having a cleansing effect in the body, but especially on the liver, gall bladder, stomach, kidneys, bowels and bladder. Cleansing and stimulating these organs has long been thought among traditional healers to relieve many of the above conditions, by removing obstructions and allowing for increased efficiency among the organs of assimilation and elimination.

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.
Send me an e-mail to register at to register.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Winter Syrup and Elixir Shares Available!!!

Well, I thought I was done making medicine for the season, but after making a bunch of yummy herbal syrups for last month's tea and syrup class my mind just kept coming back to the idea of offering a sweet medicine share for the winter months. So, here it goes...

Winter Wellness Herbal Syrup and Elixer Medicine Share
Sweet handcrafted medicine to get you through the cold season

Each monthly share will include one bottle of herbal syrup and one bottle of herbal elixir. These sweet medicines will be formulated with healing herbs specific for treating and preventing the common complaints of the winter season. 

I am also offering this share in two sizes...
Single/couple includes a 4 ounce bottle of syrup and 2 ounce bottle of elixir each month,
Family size includes an 8 ounce bottle of syrup and a 4 ounce bottle of elixir each month.

I am also offering a shipping option for those of you who cannot make it out to our place for a pick up.

Each share will be available for picking up or shipping out on the third Saturday of each month, November through February (four months worth of herbal sweetness!).
To begin with, November's share will include an elderberry/rosehip syrup to get our systems geared up for the cold season, and a choke cherry cough elixir. Subsequent months will include winter medicines like my gypsy flu elixir, a winter warming elixir, winter roots throat and lung syrups and other healing winter medicines. 

Whenever possible my medicines are made with herbs I grow and wildcraft myself and are chemical free. Herbs that I cannot harvest myself are always organic and from a reputable source. 

Here's the cost breakdown...
Single/couple share...$72 (with the shipping option...$92)
Family share...$144 (with the shipping option...$169)
Anyone interested can send me an e-mail at to sign up 

The first 10 people to sign up for a share will also receive a free herbal lip balm!

P.S. I'm only selling 24 total shares, so sign up quickly before they run out.
Deadline for signing up is November 10th, to give me time to get the first share together.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

First Colds of the Season

Maybe it was the end-of-October trip to the shore (and subsequent swimming is the cold waters), or maybe it was the stress of preparing for and anticipating the hurricane after we returned, or maybe it is just the change in the weather and little boys who don't want to dress for it, or maybe it was a combination of all these things, but this week my boys have been passing around their first colds of the season. Time to pull on the socks, kick up the wood stove, and put on the kettle because it's time to make tea.

elderflowers, catnip and chamomile tea

Anyone who know me, knows that at the first sign of a runny nose I reach for my elderberry and begin dosing. There is nothing like elderberry syrup or elixir to gear up immune systems to return our systems to balance. But after the elderberry is administered, the very next thing I do is get the tea started. A nice strong tea is my very favorite way to get the healing benefits of herbs into little bodies. It is easy to brew up a big batch in the morning and have it on hand all day long. And while I don't push the kids to eat when they are feeling under the weather, I do push the liquids. It is important to stay hydrated when sick and drinking tea throughout the day serves this function as well.

Because treating colds with herbal tea is most effective if small doses are given frequently throughout the day, I make a batch of tea by the quart and leave the herbs steeping in the jar all day, just straining off a quarter to a half cup of tea at a time. The tea continues to get stronger throughout the day this way. To each cup I add a couple drops of liquid stevia and about 20 drops of my elderberry elixir.

I rarely get protests when I offer these cups every hour or so, and usually that runny nose rarely develops into anything more serious. When my boys are over their colds in just two days I am thankful for the many gentle and effective healing herbs in my pantry, many of which were harvested from this past season's garden.

When considering herbs for a tea to treat children's colds, the following are among my favorites...

  • catnip: calming, fever reducing, helps little ones rest
  • yarrow: pain-relieving, increases circulation, reduce fevers
  • elderflowers: expectorant, calming, antiseptic, helps reduce fevers
  • chamomile: calming, antiseptic, soothing and pain-relieving
  • lemon balm: relaxing, pain-relieving, anti-bacterial, anti-viral
  • spearmint: helps reduce fever, soothing
  • mullein: expectorant, respiratory tonic, relieves congestion and soothes irritation
  • coltsfoot: relaxing, expectorant, soothing, dispels coughs

And remember, a cup of tea brewed with love and healing intent is that much more potent in loving energy. Tea takes time, but we take time for tea because it is an act of love, and what could be more healing?

Rainer with his tea