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What Is Sassafras and Is it Safe?

Sassafras
All parts of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), including roots, stems, twig leaves, bark, flowers and fruit, have been used throughout history for culinary, medicinal and aromatic purposes. Puddin Tain/Flickr (CC By-SA 2.0)

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Up until last week, my knowledge of sassafras began and ended in an unlikely place: a Green Day album. "Sassafras Roots," track nine of 1994's "Dookie," offered no explanation of the title and no real context for the lyrics, which read like a self-loathing love song. It was one of the only references to the word I'd hear over the next two-and-a-half decades, so I wrote the word off as an obscure drug reference and went about my pop-punk loving life.

It turns out I was kind of right, and kind of grossly uninformed, which, thanks to the internet, I'm trying to rectify on a variety of topics. Sassafras has played a role in the formulation of some narcotics, but it in and of itself is not the kind of street drug you might suspect rock bands to write songs about. Sassafras actually has a far more complex history than many people may realize, and its torrid past may be part of what makes it such a great creative muse.

"The Sassafras albidum is a deciduous tree native to the U.S., most commonly found along the eastern and southeastern regions," says Nikki Tilley, senior editor of the website Gardening Know How.

"It's well known for its medicinal use and as a spice, especially for root beer, dating back to the 1500s, though is speculated to have been utilized long before that."

The trees, which produce a dark blue or black fruit that birds and small animals love, blooms in springtime and is sometimes called America's "only native spice." In the early 17th century, European settlers caught on to the potential in the plant from North American Indians who'd been using it for a variety of medicinal purposes. According to the paper, "Sassafras and its Role in Early America, 1562-1662," author B.W. Higinbotham declared that sassafras "has probably had more to do with the making of early American history than any other plant," and author Lesley Bremness wrote, "sassafras was perhaps the first Native American herb to be exported to Europe."

Sassafras in Food and Medicine

Members of the Cherokee tribe reportedly boiled sassafras leaves to produce a tea intended to purify the blood and address a variety of ailments including skin diseases, joint inflammation and fever. The plant was also ground into a paste (known as a poultice) to treat wounds and sores, and the root bark was used to treat digestive issues. "The leaves were often used for healing poultices and in tea preparations or as flavoring in food, while the root bark was the main source of its medicinal properties," Tilley says. "Root beer was also derived from the tree's root."

That's right: When root beer hit the market in the mid-19th century, recipes incorporated sassafras and another plant called sarsaparilla, along with licorice root, mint, nutmeg and more. The inclusion of these ingredients was really based on convenience and availability. American colonists put together a collection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages out of whatever locally grown herbs, roots and barks were on hand.

The Dark Side of Sassafras

But that mixology experimentation had to change by the mid-20th century when regulators realized one ingredient in particular had the potential to do more harm than good in its unaltered state. "Unfortunately, there is a darker side to sassafras called safrole, a toxic compound found in the plant's essential oils," Tilley says. "Because of [safrole's] potential carcinogenic properties, the FDA banned its use in the 1960s."

Although safrole was prohibited because of its potential toxicity, some plant experts say the small amount once found in commercial beverages actually poses a small risk of harm and it's fairly easy to eliminate without throwing the sassafras out of the equation entirely. "Sassafras as a drink has the effect of tasting good and there is no reason to remove the safrole," says author and wild plant expert Samuel Thayer. "The amount of safrole is very small and is mostly or wholly eliminated through boiling." To Thayer's point, Steven Foster and James A. Duke argue in the "Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs" that "the amount of the substance in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer."

Nevertheless, it's tough to find root beer that contains sassafras these days (though Google yields plenty of results for homemade recipes) and it turns out safrole actually has an even more sinister reputation outside the kitchen. "Safrole and sassafras oil has been used in the making of psychoactive drugs like MDMA, also known as ecstasy, an illegal class A substance in the U.S. which heightens mental and emotional stimulation," Tilley says. "Safrole is now extracted from products using sassafras, like root beer, to eliminate any possible issues associated with this compound."

All that said, sassafras in and of itself isn't a bad plant, despite its less than wholesome associations. You can still purchase sassafras root bark (minus the safrole) in dry or powder form at many health food stores, and it's a popular thickening agent in gumbos, an earthy additive to tea and an occasional flavor enhancer for stews and sauces. And still worthy of leaving a pop-punk lyrical legacy thanks to Green Day.

Learn more about sassafras in "Foxfire 4: Fiddle Making, Spring Houses, Horse Trading, Sassafras Tea, Berry Buckets, Gardening" by Eliot Wigginton. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.

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