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.


  1. I grew up in a hollo' in the northern panhandle of West-by-gawd-Virginia and drank sassafrass tea through my elementary-school years. I'm now nearly 77 years old so, obviously, it had no bad effects on me.

    Also, in my late teens and early twenties, I found a farmers' market where I could buy bags of
    dried sassafrass root, which I bought and chewed.

    If that is so bloody dangerous, how did I live to an age of more than three-quarters of a century?

    Maybe the health/safety NAZIs should back off!


    1. I'm from western PA and the same for me. drank plenty of the tea and chewed lots of root. great stuff.
      It's been a while since living up there and I have recently planted 3 trees here in Florida. Any idea when I should expect to see any growth activity on them?

    2. It seems like the natural range of sassafras extends down to northern Florida, but not to southern Florida.

  2. we use to always dig for sassafras roots when we were kids, it is so good. i also disbelieve the ridiculous claims of cancer

  3. I agree with Mr. Sorsby. The health/safety NAZIs should back off. I love sassafras tea, btw.

  4. I think I will harvest the roots from the tree that I have in the backyard.

  5. Is it o to make tea out of roots harvested in May?

    1. Spring is traditionally the time to harvest the roots. Just keep in mind that the more energy the tree has sent up into her leaves, the less will be in the roots, so don't wait too long.

  6. What about September? I'm going camping and I would like to make some tea for me and my friends. I tried it at camp once and I love it!

    1. September is a lovely time to harvest the roots, Sarah. Here is a trick…the trees usually grow in groups and are connected via the roots underground, so it you dig between two trees, you may find a nice piece of root to harvest without having to kill a tree. Just ask permission and offer gratitude for your medicine.

  7. My grandmother loved it but died at only 100 years old,
    Look every ad you see for medicine on TV as effects of cancer, lymphoma, TB, heart damage , liver damage, and or sudden death, Ya I will take my chances with the wonderful taste of sassafras

  8. I'm 29 years old andmy grandad use to make me tea from the roots when I was a youngster. I'm going to take my 5 year old son with me this year to harvest some from our property. The things the kids now and days can learn and do with people like us