The Sassy Sassafras Tree
The Sassafras tree has one of the most beautiful autumn displays. The leaves turn multiple shades of red, orange and yellow and are so vibrant!
In 7th grade science class we learned that the bark has a wonderful spicy scent, much like root beer, and was used by Native Americans in tea as a tonic for a multitude of health problems. It also has the unusual feature of having 3 different shaped leaves on the same tree: some are mitten shaped, some have 3 "fingers" and some are a smooth egg shape. My 7th grade classmates and I were assigned to collect Sassafras bark and bring it in to class the next day. We brewed Sassafras tea in class and we all got a chance to taste test it. It really is delicious!
Unbeknownst to us (and our teacher) at that time, parts of the Sassafras tree have hallucinogenic and stimulant properties (no wonder we all liked it!) and have also been found to be carcinogenic. The oil from the plant, which contains safrole, a psychoactive substance, is used in the production of illicit drugs. The FDA has since banned Sassafras oil in commercial foods, including tea.
By contrast, gumbo filé, a beautiful spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the Sassafras tree is legal (and won't get you high). The leaves of the plant don't contain safrole and don't have the health risk of other parts of the tree. Gumbo filé is widely used in Creole gumbos and stews and is used as a delicious seasoning and a thickener.
I'm glad I got the chance for my one taste of Sassafras tea but am perfectly content to leave it at that. If you'd like to get an idea of the flavor, just break a branch off a Sassafras tree and take a whiff...it's wonderful!