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Early Spring in Southern Indiana means it's time to make Sassafras Tea. The old timers used to call it spring tonic and claimed that drinking it in spring helped thin and purify the blood after a long cold winter of inactivity. I don't know if that's true or not, but I love the flavor, so it has become a spring tradition at my house.
There have been reports of scientific studies purporting that sassafras causes liver cancer, but the studies evidently fed enormous amounts of the stuff to laboratory animals. Due to this, I don't recommend drinking huge quantities, or drinking it year-round. That being said I find it unlikely that a few cups in the spring would cause problems, considering people have been drinking it for centuries.
If you're worried about it, don't drink it, but if you're interested in making your own Sassafras tea, here's how it's done.
The first (and most critical) thing you have to be able to do is identify the tree. Sassafras trees are common over most of the Eastern United States. The leaves are unique in that they have three different forms on a single tree.
Some leaves are simply oval shaped - meaning they have a single lobe.
Others are mitten shaped - meaning that they have two lobes.
And finally others have three lobes - kind of like a mitten with two thumbs.
As with any wild plant, if you're not sure about identification, get the advice from a knowledgeable person, or consult a good tree identification guide. I recommend the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees (eastern region) as one of the finest resources for tree identification.
Sassafras saplings are very common in old fence rows and field edges. They tend to be a pioneer tree - one of the first trees to begin growing back in areas that have been cleared, and not maintained.
Sassafras leaves are dried and pulverized to make file - a spice used by folks in the south (Especially the Cajuns in Louisiana). File is used as a seasoning and thickener in soups, stews, and gumbos. This page demonstrates how to make file
A good trenching spade is my tool of choice for digging Sassafras roots. If you have access to saplings, dig up an entire sapling, if a larger tree, just dig and cut a single thumb sized root.
Sassafras root will have a spicy smell to it. A piece of root about 1/2 to 3/4 inches in diameter (thumb sized), about a foot long will be enough to make between a quart and a half gallon of tea.
Cut the roots into roughly 1" to 2" sections. You can do this with your trenching spade as well - if you keep it clean and sharp.
Wash loose soil from the root pieces under running water. A soft bristle brush will help dislodge any remaining soil.
Some folks will peel the bark from the roots, but it's not necessary. The bark slips off very easily, and all of the flavor is in the bark. If you peel the bark, discard the wood. Personally, I take a less industrious approach and use the entire root, saving a step. Either way works.
You can peel the bark and cut it into roughly 1/4' pieces, and dry it for a few days. You can store this dried root bark in a sealed container for making tea any time of the year. Stored this way, the bark will stay good for at least a year.
Place the roots or root bark in a small sauce pan and cover with a quart or so of water.
Bring it to a boil and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. The water will take on a reddish brown color, and start looking like tea. It will begin to smell really good while boiling.
Once the tea has simmered, remove the roots, and pour the tea through a strainer to remove any fragments that will inevitably be floating around in it.
Sassafras tea can be a bit bitter since it has tannic acid in it, as most tree bark does, so you will want to sweeten it a bit. I prefer to use honey, but sugar works fine.
you have your sassafras roots found, dug, cut up, cleaned, peeled,
boiled, strained, poured in a cup, and sweetened, you're ready to sit
back and enjoy the sweet spicy result of your labor...Spring Tonic or
Sassafras Tea - the old timers knew a good thing when they found it -