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How To Harvest And Use Sassafras

Updated on November 2, 2016
Cynthia Hoover profile image

Cynthia is a homesteader who grows, harvests, and stores many foods and prefers natural homemade medicinal remedies for her family.

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Sassafras is a key ingredient in spring tonics. It can also be made into a stand alone sassafras tea. I was excited to join some friends during their recent Sassafras harvest in order to obtain pictures to go with my article and share in the bounty of the harvest as well. I wish more people would share their harvests and experience with each other. We are never too old to learn something new and useful!

Harvesting sassafras can be a bit labor intensive at times, and take a fair amount of physical strength. Something to keep in mind before you decide to venture out and harvest. Sassafras can be used for many medicinal purposes and home remedies. Once a key ingredient in file' Gumbo, and still a sought after ingredient for spring tonics or making tea.

Sassafras is a great choice when looking to add to your arsenal of home remedies and holistic medicines. Though sassafras is considered an alternative natural medicine in current society. It was widely used for thousands of years prior to the pharmaceutical industry that we are accustomed to today.

The Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

If you know any "old timers", Native Americans or mountain folk, I am sure you have heard of some of the medicinal uses for Sassafras. Just in case you have not, here are a few examples:

  • Fever reducer
  • Eye Inflammation
  • Menstruation
  • Parturition pain
  • Rheumatism
  • Gout
  • Dropsy
  • Anticoagulant

Sassafras is known to reduce fevers, relieve eye inflammation, ease symptoms of menstruation, help with parturition pain (childbirth), soothe rheumatism, gout and even dropsy. In the past, it was commonly used as a cure for scurvy and to help alleviate many skin irritations and conditions.

In addition Sassafras also has anticoagulant properties and has been used as a blood thinner, a blood purifier, or for those suffering with blood clots. Sassafras is supposed to be effective in treating chronic and excess mucus discharge and has also been recommended as a cure for gonorrhea and syphilis.

Historically, Sassafras was used a spring tonic to thin the blood to prepare for the coming summer months, and to rejuvenate and cleanse the body.


Sassafras Bark and Roots

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As you can see from the picture, Sassafras has a pretty distinct large bark, separated by gaps.After knocking the tree over or digging at the base you will expose the roots of the tree.While most often the sassafras root has a reddish color you may find white as well. You will know you have Sassafras by the anise scent that is released from the roots.
As you can see from the picture, Sassafras has a pretty distinct large bark, separated by gaps.
As you can see from the picture, Sassafras has a pretty distinct large bark, separated by gaps.
After knocking the tree over or digging at the base you will expose the roots of the tree.
After knocking the tree over or digging at the base you will expose the roots of the tree.
While most often the sassafras root has a reddish color you may find white as well. You will know you have Sassafras by the anise scent that is released from the roots.
While most often the sassafras root has a reddish color you may find white as well. You will know you have Sassafras by the anise scent that is released from the roots.

How to Harvest Sassafras

For more potent roots, you normally should harvest it in mid to late February, or early March. This way the sap is still concentrated in the roots of the Sassafras tree. Providing you with a more potent medicinal root.

First of all, you will want to positively identify your Sassafras trees. Since this is an end of winter or early spring harvest, you will only be able to identify them by the bark. Take a look at the photo I took of the bark of the tree for identification uses.

How much you want to harvest really depends on your needs and plans for the use of your sassafras. For my small family I took home a grocery store bag full. I intend to use it for tea, and a spring tonic.

Here is a list of a few items you may need while harvesting:

  1. Shovel
  2. Pruning shears
  3. Gloves
  4. Cutting tool
  5. Bucket of water

Now, you may be wondering - since I want to harvest the roots of the Sassafras - how I did it! Well, you can start digging with a shovel if you prefer; we did some that way. Or, you can use a four- wheeler and give the small trees a little shove to help lift the root ball up for harvesting.

Keep in mind that should do this on a day when it is warm enough that the ground is not frozen. If the ground is frozen you will not manage much of a harvest, as the ground will be rock-solid hard and fighting you the entire time! Although it is technically spring, it has not been that long since we had our last snow!

Either way, you will need to ensure that you are collecting the Sassafras roots, even the small ones. Often, this will mean getting your hands a little dirty. Shoving the tree over will more than likely cause some breakage at the roots.

The Sassafras roots maybe different colors; some may be red, some may be white. You will know you have the right tree for sure once you have broken a root, and well - sniffed it. You read that correctly, the smell of a Sassafras root is not a mistakable one. It will smell much like black licorice; remember it was once used to flavor candies!

How much you want to harvest really depends on your needs and plans for the use of your sassafras. For my small family I took home a grocery store bag full. I intend to use it for tea, and a spring tonic.

You will find that pruning shears come in, handy for clipping the roots from the tree as well as dealing with any stubborn ones you just can't get out of the ground. A cutting tool can be a hand saw, as you may run into some large roots that are to big for shears.

The bucket of water can be very handy in "pre-rinsing" the roots. Getting as much dirt off while harvesting means less dirt going into your home!

Steps to cleaning sassafras

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Place the roots in a sanitized sink. Fill with just enough lukewarm or cool water to cover the roots.A scrub brush like this one is great, although pretty much any one will do. You want to be able to get in all the crooks and clean out the dirt. Once you have cleaned and rinsed your roots place them in a bowl or other large container. Anything will do. You can choose to cut straight into the container or use another- I prefer not to make extra dishes for myself so I use the same one.
Place the roots in a sanitized sink. Fill with just enough lukewarm or cool water to cover the roots.
Place the roots in a sanitized sink. Fill with just enough lukewarm or cool water to cover the roots. | Source
A scrub brush like this one is great, although pretty much any one will do. You want to be able to get in all the crooks and clean out the dirt.
A scrub brush like this one is great, although pretty much any one will do. You want to be able to get in all the crooks and clean out the dirt. | Source
Once you have cleaned and rinsed your roots place them in a bowl or other large container. Anything will do. You can choose to cut straight into the container or use another- I prefer not to make extra dishes for myself so I use the same one.
Once you have cleaned and rinsed your roots place them in a bowl or other large container. Anything will do. You can choose to cut straight into the container or use another- I prefer not to make extra dishes for myself so I use the same one.

Cleaning Sassafras

Now that you have harvested your Sassafras, it is time to clean it. Inevitably the roots will be very dirty - even if you took my advice and took a bucket of water with you while harvesting.

Shake the Sassafras roots over a compost bin - preferably - or over a trash can to shake out as much loose dirt as you can. Clean and sanitize your sink. Then, put the roots in the sink and fill the sink with lukewarm water. As you can see in my photos I added just enough to cover the roots; no need to waste water.

All you really need to clean the roots, is a scrub brush, and elbow grease. My brush is from the dollar store and works just fine. Then simply scrub the roots with a brush, to scrub off as much dirt as possible. The bristles of a scrub brush are best for dislodging dirt.

Then, place your clean Sassafras roots into a large bowl or container. I used my stainless steel mixing bowl. Now that most of the hard work is done, give yourself a pat on the back! Do not get too complacent though, we still have some work ahead.

Preparing Sassafras Roots

Now that you have harvested and cleaned your sassafras roots, we can move on to the next step. If you choose to remove the bark, you can, although there is much flavor in the bark as well as the roots.

You will now need pruning shears or another sharp cutting tool. Cut your roots into about 1 inch sections. I have seen other people do them in larger sections, but I want the most out of my root. Leaving them larger may leave much of the safrole oil in the root, rather than into the tea where we want it.

I start my tea when I have cut enough 1 inch pieces to toss in the pan with water. That way, it is working its magic while I am still cutting my roots. Doing it in this manner, means that a nice treat awaits me when I am finished.

Continue cutting until all the roots are in 1 inch pieces. This can prove to be a hard task; you may have to ask for some help. My fiancé had to do some of the larger ones as, I just did not have the strength in my hands to cut them.

Cooking Sassafras Tea

First fill your pot with cool water and sassafras root, then put it on the stove. This varies slightly from most tea making procedures. You need the root in prior to boiling the water to get all the safrole from the root.
First fill your pot with cool water and sassafras root, then put it on the stove. This varies slightly from most tea making procedures. You need the root in prior to boiling the water to get all the safrole from the root. | Source
Put the pot on high heat until you reach a rolling boil, them put on low to simmer.
Put the pot on high heat until you reach a rolling boil, them put on low to simmer. | Source
Once you have achieved a deep dark red (oxblood) color, it is time to put a lid on your pot and turn off the heat. Allow the tea 10 minutes to steep with the lid on.
Once you have achieved a deep dark red (oxblood) color, it is time to put a lid on your pot and turn off the heat. Allow the tea 10 minutes to steep with the lid on.

Sassafras Tea

I will have to admit this is one of the simplest teas I have ever made.

What you need.

  1. Saucepan or small pot- with lid
  2. Water
  3. Honey/Sugar optional
  4. Sassafras roots

There is a fair amount of tannic acid in the bark, so the tea can be bitter. I personally do not drink any sweet teas, or any sugary drinks for that matter. You can opt for honey to sweeten your tea or you can use sugar. Frankly, I am not a refined sugar fan.

How much water you use will depend on how many people you expect to drink the tea. Since I was the only one home when I made mine, I put a less than half a pot of water, along with about 10 pieces of the smaller roots I had cut.

  • Fill pot with desired amount of lukewarm water
  • Put Sassafras roots into the water
  • Turn stove on high
  • Bring the water to a boil
  • Once it has reached a rolling boil, turn the heat down to a simmer

Prepare to wait. Simmer the roots until you see that the water is a deep reddish color. Once the color is reached, it is now time to put the lid on the pot, turn off the burner and steep the tea. Steeping tea is an essential step in any tea preparation. Allow your tea to steep for at least five minutes, but ten minutes is optimal. This allows the flavors to develop as the tea cools.

Now that your tea is done, you may want to strain it before drinking. I strained it for purposes of instruction, although I had already drunk mine without straining. Some people prefer to strain it as there are tiny particles from the root in it. I find that I doubt my native american ancestors had any strainers laying around so it was probably drank, "as is" and that is good enough for me.

Remember you may want to add honey or sugar, as it can be bitter and almost spicy. I always detect hints of a peppery aroma along with the licorice smell as it is heated.


If you really want to release the oils, you can use a meat mallet or something similar to pound the roots before you put them into the water in the pot. I find that it is an unnecessary addition to the process, since we cut them down into small pieces. I just thought I would add in case it was of interest to anyone.


There are many variations of Sassafras tea, commonly called "Spring Tonic", which use Sassafras along with dandelion and molasses and many other variants.



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Drinking Sassafras Tea or Spring Tonic

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Once you have allowed your tea to steep, you are ready to strain your tea. You can use a small sifter like shown. Or cheesecloth will work as well. This is simply to remove any large pieces from your tea.As you can see this is much darker than your run of the mill tea varieties. You can add honey or sugar to sweeten the tea.Now you are ready to enjoy the fruits (well tea) of your labor!
Once you have allowed your tea to steep, you are ready to strain your tea. You can use a small sifter like shown. Or cheesecloth will work as well. This is simply to remove any large pieces from your tea.
Once you have allowed your tea to steep, you are ready to strain your tea. You can use a small sifter like shown. Or cheesecloth will work as well. This is simply to remove any large pieces from your tea. | Source
As you can see this is much darker than your run of the mill tea varieties. You can add honey or sugar to sweeten the tea.
As you can see this is much darker than your run of the mill tea varieties. You can add honey or sugar to sweeten the tea.
Now you are ready to enjoy the fruits (well tea) of your labor!
Now you are ready to enjoy the fruits (well tea) of your labor!

Drying Sassafras Long Term Storage

As with any root, you need to ensure that it is thoroughly dried in order to store for long term use.

A commercial or store-bought dehydrate will work great for this purpose. If you do not have a dehydrator, there is no need to purchase one. You can set your oven to 120 degrees, place a cookie sheet with your roots in the oven, and dry them this way.

Another alternative method is screen drying. This will come in handy if you are living off the grid and do not want to use gas or electric. Simple screens like the ones in your window are all that you need. You can prop these up on blocks, though only at the edges, as it is important for the air to flow all around the screens. Place these in a cool dark place; a barn or cellar will work. I can not give you an exact time with this method as too many things factor in with this drying method. It could be days or weeks until they are completely dry. In general, depending on the type of roots, the size of roots, and the moisture in the roots, it takes about 3-15 days for them to thoroughly dry with the screen method.

Dried roots will store for a year. They are best kept in an airtight container. An oxygen absorbent packet will prolong the life of dry goods, as well. It is always best to store these in a cool dry place. Light can contribute to the spoilage of any stored foods if you are not careful.

If you want more information on the correct way to store foods I have written an in depth article on the subject, you can find ithere.


Bullk Herbs: Sassafras Root (Organic)
Bullk Herbs: Sassafras Root (Organic)

There have been a few times that I missed harvesting my own sassafras. Lucky for me I found these sassafras roots readily available and have enjoyed making tea and tonic from them. I have used these in place of my own harvested roots for teas and spring tonic with great success. The roots are very potent, so they are definitely harvested at the optimum time. If harvesting your own sassafras seems labor intensive these are a great alternative, and you will still reap the benefits.

 

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© 2015 Cynthia Hoover

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    • profile image

      crazymom3 2 years ago

      I wouldn't know where to find a tree and what if you drink too much tea, can it cause s stroke or internal bleeding?

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 2 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      I would not be worried about stroke or internal bleeding. As a rule I would not consume more than a cup of tea. Sassafras has been used for ages, there really were not any studies done as to the effect of applications like tea. Tea is not concentrated safrole oil there is a difference in the two. The trees grow everywhere really, often found in wooded areas and forests.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 2 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      I have seen sassafras in the Amish country, they use it in soda. I thought it tasted like root beer. I didn't know it came from trees, that was interesting.

      Blessings to you.

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 2 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Rachel you are right in a soda it will taste like root beer, I do not sweeten mine, so it is a bit weird. I have never been big on sugary drinks. No sugar in my coffee or any of my teas. I only drink coffee, tea, and water. Kind of weird being a southern girl and I do not drink sweet tea. I do make a great sweet tea for visitors and always found it funny that they rave about it (since I never taste it lol). I think it would remind me of a horehound candy if I did sweeten it (just a guess) with that slight root beer flavor. I appreciate the comment! I hope you have a blessed day!

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 2 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      I should add that Sassafras is a great hardwood for those that use wood stoves for fireplaces to heat their homes. You can do both at the same time too, if you do not mind chopping wood in the winter or early spring. Once spring gets going the sap goes back up into the tree and you will not get much flavor or medicinal properties from it.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing the interesting information, Cynthia. I've been interested in sassafras for some time. I enjoyed learning more about it very much.

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 2 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Thank you AliciaC! I have been playing with "roots" and herbs since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I hope to share many more old time traditions, teas, and tinctures once the plants are producing!

    • Matt Easterbrook5 profile image

      Matthew A Easterbrook 2 years ago from Oregon

      Cynthia thank you for sharing your tea recipe. Also, for writing this very useful, interesting, beautiful sassafras photography, and awesome hub. I really enjoyed reading it.

      Thanks,

      Matt

    • Marina7 profile image

      Marina 2 years ago from Clarksville TN

      I love the sassafras flavor. I don't know if we have sassafras trees in our neighborhood but if not I can always buy some tea.

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 2 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Very true Marina7 you can buy the tea if you wish! It is a wonderfully refreshing flavor!

    • Shades-of-truth profile image

      Emily Tack 2 years ago from USA

      I LOVE sassafras. I even have some of "Pappy's" sassafras tea here at my store. Ever since I was a small child, I have loved the taste of sassafras!

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 2 years ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Shades-of-truth I love it too! I just make my own :). I love being outside and playing in the dirt (still a kid at heart) so making my own is an excuse to play ;).

    • Don Bobbitt profile image

      Don Bobbitt 18 months ago from Ruskin Florida

      Really Great article. I shared it and Pinned it and I even read it twice because it is full of some really great hints and tips about Sassafras.

      Thanks, DON

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 18 months ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Don thank you so much! It is getting to be that time of year again! Though I will have to wait till all this snow melts before I attempt it! I really appreciate the pin and share! Thanks again!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 18 months ago from America

      My Dad came for a visit from Arkansas. He brought some Sassafras roots with him and made me some tea. I liked it. I also like your hub.

    • Cynthia Hoover profile image
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      Cynthia Hoover 18 months ago from Newton, West Virginia

      Moonlake thanks so much for the comment! I am glad you enjoyed Sassafras tea!

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