If you’ve strolled around the edge of the woods you’ve encountered a sassafras tree, though it might have been only a seedling. Unless you knew what you were looking for you probably walked right past without giving it as much as a fleeting thought. Its natural range covers most of the eastern U.S.
Sassafras albidum is one of the more unique specimens we have in eastern North Carolina and it’s one I always show my students when teaching the art of plant identification. You can use four of your senses to identify this one, and once you learn it you’ll be able to recognize it all over your neighborhood.
Leaves come out of the stem singly and can be either roughly oval, three lobed, or shaped like a mitten. Their texture is slightly rough, especially on the lower side of young leaves, and they show early orange red fall color.
That’s all rather bland, but the unique characteristics of sassafras make it easy to distinguish by taste and smell. Leaves and bright yellowish green stems have a citrus aroma. My students call it the fruit loop tree. Roots smell like root beer, quite appropriate since that was their use once.
Many are familiar with sassafras tea, but far fewer have experience with the tremendous potential of the unique foliage. When dried and ground it makes a great thickener for soups and sauces, imparting a slight citrus flavor. If you’ve eaten file gumbo you’ve eaten sassafras leaves or file.
The sticky thickening agent is natural mucilage that was once used for making postage stamps. It has far fewer carbohydrates and calories than potato or corn starch, so I use it when I embark on a low carbohydrate diet. It gives me a few more food options as gravy and other thick sauces normally are off my list.
File can be bought on the internet, and likely in some natural foods stores, but I prefer to make my own. Dry the leaves in the open air, crush them and remove the veins and other fibers. The next step is to grind the leaf tissue into a fine powder with a coffee grinder. Now the file is ready to use. A little goes a long way, so you might want to experiment on how viscous you want your final product. For maximum shelf life make sure to store the powder sealed tightly in a dark place.
There has long been controversy with sassafras. The roots which yield the flavorful tea contain an alkaloid and supposed carcinogen called safrole, which has been banned by the FDA since 1960. For this reason many recommend not drinking large amounts of sassafras tea.
Researching the topic yields mixed opinions on how much tea is safe. Some scientists say that a person would have to drink nothing but sassafras tea their entire life to significantly increase the risk of liver cancer. There are only trace amounts of safrole in the leaves, however, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are harmful. For centuries Native Americans used extracts of sassafras to treat various ailments.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City (firstname.lastname@example.org).