On one of my days of rest from running last week, I went for a little hike in a wooded area near me, enjoying that early autumn coolness. The leaves are still stubbornly holding on to their greenness, but they will eventually change into all sorts of brilliant colors within a few weeks as the temperatures fall and the days get shorter.
As much as I enjoy the fresh air and greenery of a hike, I also venture out into the wilderness to see what Mother Nature has to offer me. As I often like to say, if you can identify edible wild plants, a hike in the woods can be like a visit to the supermarket.
Sassafras growing on the edge of the woods
Unfortunately, my favorite wild mustard greens are all dead; so are most other wild greens. Fortunately, sassafras grows plentifully in this area, and I’m in the mood for some spicy tea. Sassafras is usually a small to medium sized tree, and saplings are common in this area. Believe it or not, during the colonial era, sassafras was one of America’s biggest exports to Europe.
Sassafras is easy to identify, due to how it produces 3 different types of leaves: one with 3 lobes, one with 1 lobe so it looks like a mitten, and one that is oval shaped. Very few plants in the north-eastern U.S are like this. If you can’t identify it by sight, you can try cutting off a little section of leaf or twig and smelling it. It will smell sweetly aromatic, sort of like cinnamon to me.
Although you can make tea from any part of the sassafras plant, the roots pack the most punch.
Luckily the soil was kind of loose so it was easy for me to dig up some sassafras root with my hand.
I brought it home, cut it up and then put in some water to boil then simmer it for 20 minutes. I then poured the sassafras water through a strainer into a tea cup. It tasted amazing, it’s very soothing, tasting sort of like cinnamon or even ginger at times.
It’s a pleasant tasting tea, but I don’t know if it has any medicinal effects, beyond some mild anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Sassafras for the longest time was one of the main ingredients in root beer, but I will explain below why this is no longer the case.
The potential carcinogenicity of sassafras
Sassafras contains safrole, which according to animal research is a carcinogen. I think everyone should be made aware of this, even if the evidence for harm in humans isn’t especially strong. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Sassafras is Safer Without Safrole:
Research: In the 1950s and ’60s, researchers showed that high doses of safrole caused liver damage and liver and lung cancer in mice and rats that were fed the compound for long periods of time. Nursing mice developed tumors when their mothers were given safrole. Because human studies are lacking, researchers don’t know what dose might cause cancer in adults or children. (Safrole occurs naturally in many spices, like nutmeg, but in amounts tiny enough to be considered harmless.) Although lab experiments show that safrole has antifungal and antibacterial properties, no clinical research has provided evidence for its — or sassafras’ — supposed health benefits.
Based on other things I’ve read, root beer makers can still use sassafras so long as the safrole is removed. Since I drink sassafras tea about once every 4 years, and in small amounts, I don’t think I have a whole lot to worry about. This post isn’t necessarily a recommendation to drink sassafras tea; you can still enjoy the fragrance on hikes or even use it as an air freshener, but there are a million other herbal teas you can safely drink that may even have some medicinal effects.
This site has some interesting information on sassafras, suggesting the cancer risk is overblown – Safrole is not nearly as dangerous as you would think
If anyone reading this is a chemist, I would love to know what you think about the cancer-causing potential of sassafras. How dangerous is it?