Trees: Sassafras

Rocky Ridge Nature Area

Trekking to Rocky Ridge Nature Park we came across some great shade on the ridge overlooking York, PA. We had clear views all the way to the Susquehanna Valley. Carved out by glaciers, the ridge has some worn outcroppings of rocks. It is part of a 750-acre refuge for tree lovers. The mature oak forest is great with its multi-use trails gliding in and out of the oak trees, mountain laurel bushes and sassafras.

First coming across sassafras on the Appalachian Trail many years ago, it is my go-to root to jazz up tea on the trail. Sassafras has been a distinguished tree for many centuries because of its aromatic properties. It is recognizable by its leaves, which are light green and appear to have mittens on the ends; either one mitten with one thumb, a single lobe or one mitten with two thumbs. The plant is often growing slowly in the leaves and detritus below the shady canopy of taller trees.


Sassafras image by nolacuisine.com

Related image

When it matures the sassafras trees can grow from 30 to over 100 feet tall. The smaller shrubs, however, are what I look for to pull up their root systems. The scent of sassafras is hard to describe. It is a cross between spearmint and camphor. At one time it was used to flavor root beer, but it is no longer used that way due to some fears of the sassafras oils which have been damaging to lab animals.

Many Native American tribes have used the leaves of sassafras to treat wounds by rubbing the leaves directly into a skin area. Over the decades tribes have used different parts of the plants (roots, stems, leaves, bark) to treat acne, urinary tract infections, and illnesses that raise the body temperature from fevers.

Sassafras wood and oil were both used in dentistry. Early toothbrushes were crafted from sassafras twigs or wood because of its aromatic properties. Sassafras was also used as an early dental anesthetic and mouth disinfectant. That said, I mainly use the sassafras root in tea, as an enhancer to the flavor.

According to Wikipedia Sassafras was first described by the Bohemian botanist Jan Presl in 1825. And the name “sassafras” comes from botanist Nicolas Monardes (1569) to mean stone breaking: the Latin saxifraga or saxifragussaxum “rock” + frangere “to break.”[1] It seems that the plant was known to grow on rocky ground and speed up the fracturing of rocks, which seems appropriate for our trip to Rocky Ridge.

Whatever the origin, the sassafras tea we brewed after our hike was an aromatic treat for the next few days. More hunting for the roots in hikes to come, as it is too good to have only once a year!



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sassafras