Following Independence Day, what better wild ingredient to feature than sassafras? The aromatic bark, leaves, and roots were believed to be the first plant exported from North America to Europe, back in the late 1500s. All parts of this little tree made for delicious—and different—teas, sweets, and other confections, and sassafras commanded exorbitant prices in Europe ... until everyone started drinking sassafras tea to cure their syphilis. Soon no one wanted to be seen sipping their syphilis cure in public, and the sassafras trade withered.
More recently, sassafras has been getting a bad rap from the folks at the USDA, who say that the active component of sassafras, safrole, is a "known carcinogen." Why? They gave tons of pure safrole to rats, and the rats got cancer. Later researchers noted that, like the whole saccharine scare in the late 1970s, safrole seems to cause cancer in rats—but not people.
Still, many people still think that sipping sassafras tea or eating sassafras ice cream will doom you to a date with your oncologist. Just know that there are many times more "known carcinogens" in a bottle of beer than there are in any homemade sassafras product you might make. By one calculation, you'd need to drink 24 gallons of sassafras root beer a day for an extended time to get the amount of safrole fed to those rats. And if you drank that much soda, you'd have lots of other problems to deal with.
Holly A. Heyser
Armed with that knowledge, I was determined to collect some sassafras on our recent trip to New England. As we were walking around Cape Ann, I soon spotted the telltale mitten leaves of the tree. Sassafras is unmistakable: it is a spindly, shrubby tree that lives beneath larger trees. Its upper bark is green, and the leaves come in three varieties, often on the same branch—a mitten, a three-lobed leaf, and a simple spear-shaped leaf.
The way you collect sassafras is to pull seedlings right out of the ground. I know, it sounds destructive, but it isn't. Sassafras grows in clumps, and the parent tree sends out suckers under the ground, which then become seedlings; it's a lot like mulberry. You find a clump—look for at least eight to 10 treelings scattered about—go to one about two to three feet tall, grasp the very base of the tree, and yank it straight up. You should come away with the seedling and about 10 inches of the root.
You did not get all of the root, you know, and this is a good thing. It will regrow later. So what seems a little wanton is actually good for the sassafras cluster—it lets the surrounding seedlings grow with less competition.
All parts of this tree are useful. Notice I did not say "edible," because the leaves are the only part you actually eat. You know them as file powder, and without sassafras leaves your gumbo would not be gumbo.
I left the leaves of the seedlings I pulled with my sister and brother-in-law. They can make either tea or file powder from them. I took the twigs and roots back to California.
What's the difference? They make very different teas. The twigs have a lemony-floral flavor and aroma that one author has compared to Froot Loops cereal—not exactly a selling point in my book, but they are lovely. The roots, however, are the "root" in root beer.