Sassafras: Sweet, spicy, slimy medicine


Not only does it have magically varied leaves which look like mittens, bark which tastes like a sweet and spicy heaven and leaves which can thicken up spicy stews like nothing else, it’s also a wonderful medicinal tonic.


Native to the eastern United States, Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a deciduous tree that ranges from southern Ontario to central Florida and as far west as eastern portions of Oklahoma and Texas.  A distinctive feature is that it has three different leaf shapes on the same tree, including the unique mitten-shaped leaf. 


Sassafras has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use.  All parts have been used.  The young leaves are dried and powdered to make filé, a thickening agent for soups and stews that is best known for its use in gumbo.  The flowers may be used in salads or dried and used for tea.  The root was used to make root beer.  The essential oil of the root had at one point been used as a flavoring agent in commercial products.


The bark, especially the root bark, is the primary part of the plant that is used medicinally.  Native American peoples have used it for many different conditions including as a de-worming agent, an anti-diarrheal agent, for colds and rheumatic conditions, and as a wash and poultice for skin eruptions and rashes.[1]  It was listed in the first published herbal of the Colonial period and was exported to Europe.[2]  The early Eclectic Wooster Beach listed it in his mid 19th century materia medica as an alternative and stimulant for rheumatic conditions and eruptive diseases, and he used the pith infused in rose water as a wash for inflammatory eye conditions.[3]  The Shakers sold sassafras as a medicinal herb from 1937-1885.[4]


Sassafras has had continued and successful use in the history of eastern North America, but was briefly challenged in the late 20th century.  The chemical constituent safrole is found in high concentrations in the essential oil of sassafras.   In animal studies high doses of safrole were found to be hepatocarcinogenic, though weakly.  In addition, safrole is a precursor used in the manufacture of MDMA, the drug commonly known as ecstasy, which by the 1970s had become a popular street drug.  The FDA banned commercial use of the essential oil and, for a time, banned commercial sale of the roots as well.  However, human studies of the root bark of sassafras in normal therapeutic doses as is taken in sassafras tea have failed to show toxicity, and safrole is contained in other common herbs and spices with no known side effects in normal doses, so the root bark is available commercially.  Excessively high doses should be avoided.


Sassafras has historically been used as a spring tonic tea, “purifying the blood” after the stagnation of winter.  It is primarily an alternative, assisting the body’s elimination processes whether through stimulating the the digestive system, the renal system, or the sweat glands.  It is a diaphoretic, helping the body to produce a fever to fight infection, then producing perspiration to rid the body of wastes, and as such is used for colds, influenza, and rheumatic conditions.  The pith is also a demulcent and still used as an eye wash for inflammatory eye conditions such as conjunctivitis.  The tea can also be used externally as a wash for skin eruptions and rashes.


[1] Moerman, D.E. (2009).  Native american medicinal plants: an ethnobotanical dictionary.  Portland, OR: Timber Press.

[2] Weaver, W.W., trans. and ed. (2001).  Saucer’ s herbal cures: America’s first book of botanic healing, 1762-1778. NY: Routledge. 

[3] Beach, W. (1851). The American practice condensed, or, the family physician.  NY: James M’Allister.  Reprinted.

[4] Miller, A.B. (1976).  Shaker’s herbs: a history and compendium.  NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.

Bevin Clare