After having an influenza ridden winter (and I got a flu shot) I’m pondering what herbs might make a healthful tonic. I surely could use one, along with about half the country. Hack, cough, sniffle, sniff, honk…

Sassafras comes to mind and figures prominently in my American historical romances due out this May. I love its varied mitten shaped leaves and distinctive, aromatic scent. My mother has a sassafras tree growing in her yard, but I’d have to head into the mountains to get my fix. *Note to self, plant sassafras trees. Maybe if I put in an entire grove some would survive. Our challenge is the cows which occupy much of our land and eat anything not protected behind secure fencing. Saplings are among their favorite delicacies.

You might be interested to learn, as was I, that Christopher Columbus is said to have quelled mutinous seamen by the sudden sweet smell of sassafras which indicated the nearness of land. Not only did it aid in the discovery of the New World, but was an important export to Europe in the early days of colonial American, even exceeding shipments of tobacco.

Wine made from the darkly blue berries has been imbibed for colds. During the spring flowering period, the blossoms were simmered to make a tea for reducing fevers. A blood purifying spring tonic was and still is imbibed from a tea made by brewing the roots. A tea distilled from the bark was believed to aid in the treatment of bronchitis, respiratory ailments and tummy upset. Chewing the bark was thought to help break the tobacco habit, a problem even in the early days of this country. The roots were distilled and the oil from them used to flavor many products including ginger ale, sarsaparilla, cream soda, root beer, toothpaste…

A poultice made from the leaves and laid on wounds was used to stop bleeding and aid in healing. Native Americans steeped in the many uses of sassafras passed their knowledge along to European settlers in the colonial frontier. A tea from the bark was also thought to be beneficial in the treatment of venereal disease, needed by both Indians and colonists alike. If you wonder what ailments afflicted folk in the early days of this country, you need only read what they were most interested in finding treatments for and cancer doesn’t made the top ten.

How to make sassafras tea: One method is to vigorously scrub several roots, a couple of inches long, and use the whole root or cut them in into pieces and bring to a boil in three pints of water. Reduce heat and simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and steep for another ten minutes before straining and serving. Yet another method is to drop several roots into a quart of boiling water, remove from heat and steep then serve. A pound of roots will make 4 quarts of tea and can be used several times before they lose their strength.

For the bark, especially used as a spring tonic, cut or grind a teaspoon of bark and steep in a cup of boiling water for ten minutes, strain and sip. The tea from either root or bark should have a yellowish red hue, rich smell and pleasing taste. It can be thinned with milk or cream and sweetened. I would add some honey, but those of you who like it plain, enjoy.

And good health to us all.


  1. Anonymous // February 21, 2009 at 10:18 AM  

    This was fascinating. My grandmother used to break off a small sassafras twig and use it to "brush her teeth."

    Mona might be able to answer this, but doesn't sassafras have a similar chemical response in the body to aspirin?

    I've never had sassafras tea, but I've heard about it.

  2. Beth Trissel // February 21, 2009 at 1:11 PM  

    Thanks Cyndi. As far as I know, willow bark has the same element as aspirin. So it was used to reduce fever and pain in colonial America, as were other herbs and plants.

  3. Toni V.S. // February 21, 2009 at 1:37 PM  

    Back when I was in "health food" mode, I made a lot of sassafras tea by filling a tea infuser and soaking it in boiling water. Good ol' root beer! My grandfather has trees on his property. Ahem...(Warning--lecture coming up): Sassafras has been aroung for a long time. The tea was once used as an anticoagulant and as a treatment for gonorrhea. Today, it is ground in file powder and used in gumbo a la Hank Williams' song, Jumbalaya, but the root also produces an essential oil which produced safrol, a precursor of Ecstasy. Theref ore the DEA regulates its use. (Sorry--got carried away. Didn't mean to make this so long.)

  4. Liz Jasper // February 21, 2009 at 2:35 PM  

    Gotcha. Off to dig up some roots.

  5. Beth Trissel // February 21, 2009 at 2:58 PM  

    Wow, Toni. Ecstasy? Who knew.

  6. Scarlet Pumpernickel // February 21, 2009 at 3:30 PM  

    Beth what an absolutely fabulous topic! It is definitely Spring tonic time. I remember going with my grandmother to collect Sassafras for tea. Sassafras tea has its own delicate flavor and I think of my grandmother when I taste it. My grandmother used sweet gum for her tooth brush stick and I vaguely remember my grandfather having his own favorite stick as well. The sweet gum twig was stripped of bark and the end chew so that it made bristles.

    Toni, what a wonderful addition to an already outstanding blog subject! You are a fountain of useful information to be squirelled for future reference.

    Scarlet- who confesses to being a country girl of the "southern" type.

  7. Barbara Monajem // February 21, 2009 at 4:12 PM  

    Fascinating! I have a sweet gum tree right outside my back door. So far, all I've ever used is the sweet gum balls for kids' art projects, but I'm going to try using a twig for a toothbrush stick now.

  8. Beth Trissel // February 21, 2009 at 5:14 PM  

    I've chewed sweet gum too, now that I think about it. Thanks for sharing all that, Scarlet.

  9. Mary Ricksen // February 21, 2009 at 5:39 PM  

    When I move to North Carolina that will be the very first thing I plant.
    Never tasted it either.
    My great grandmother used to make sassafras tea. So now I know why my relatives are all nuts!

  10. Jianne Carlo // February 21, 2009 at 6:05 PM  

    Where can I get a sassafras plant?

    Is it a shrub, a tree?

    Annual or perennial?


  11. Romily Bernard // February 21, 2009 at 6:36 PM  

    That's so cool. I had no idea you could do any of that. We use apple cider vinegar on the horses' food to help with digestion and immunity. They're prone to the sniffles too sometimes. So neat how effective herbal recipes can be and so sad that they're disappearing from use.

  12. Mary Marvella // February 21, 2009 at 7:29 PM  

    Excellent post and insightful comments. I know so little about herbal cures. I wonder if my grandmama the florist grew herbs?

    I love that we can share information here.

  13. Toni V.S. // February 21, 2009 at 9:03 PM  

    Here in California, Sweet Gum is called "Golden Balsam." I have a couple of really beautiful photos I took of sweet gum branches with the spiky little balls silhouetted. I've seen them stacked into a tree shape and sprayed silver for Christmas decorations, too.

  14. Beth Trissel // February 21, 2009 at 10:01 PM  

    I've made ornaments with sweet gum too. As for sassafras, it's a tree and can be on the small side or grow to be large.

  15. Edie // February 21, 2009 at 11:37 PM  

    I don't think sassafras trees grow in Wisconsin. A little too cold. I drink tea, so if I see sassafras tea I'll buy it.

  16. Joanne // February 22, 2009 at 9:01 AM  

    Great post, Beth, and interesting remedies. In my recent historical in Tudor England, the hero is made a poultice of onions and butter for his leg wound.

  17. Mona Risk // February 22, 2009 at 4:12 PM  

    Great blog Beth. Glad you are feeling better. My mother often asked for a sassafras tea after dinner. She said it helps her head and her stomach. Last year when I went through a recurrance of colds the way you did this year, a friend of my mother insisted I send my DH to buy me flex seeds in bulk. According to her instructions I boiled one tea spoon in a cup of water until it turned syrupy and then I swallowed it. It was the most horrible thing to taste but incredibly efficient. It stopped my cough.

  18. Cate Masters // February 22, 2009 at 5:32 PM  

    Great info, Beth! My dad used to drink a homemade concoction made from jalapeno peppers - he claimed it killed all the germs. I'll take his word for it, because I certainly never had the stomach to try it, though my dad was raring to go well into his eighties. Sassafras sounds much easier to take!

  19. Judy // February 23, 2009 at 8:22 AM  

    Wow! Interesting... Got me thinking about the palm trees around my house and neighborhood. Surely the Indians had a lot of uses for them besides coconuts!I love how survival dictates invention! Thanks for the post!

  20. Nightingale // February 23, 2009 at 12:23 PM  

    Thanks for sharing the tonic recipe, Beth. I prefer natural remedies.

  21. roseygirl // March 3, 2009 at 12:50 AM  

    Hi Beth I finally found your Blogspot blog as MySpace kept deleting my link to you...GRrr!....
    I am a Tea drinker, but I have to say I have never had Sassafras tea??