Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sassafras: Jewel of the forest

It wasn't until Beltane of this year, 2014 that my interest in Sassafras was pricked. At the last day of the gathering people were talking about making some Sassafras tea and how someone that attended the same gathering had taught them how to find sassafras. Well, of course I got them to show me. That was pretty kool. Now that I can recognize it if I find myself walking in the woods. After the gathering I came home and finish doing some research on sassafras.

The Native Americans found the sassafras tree to be very useful in their everyday life. They believed that the scent of a sassafras could drive insects away especially bedbugs. as well as evil spirits that could come and visit you during your sleep. Early settlers had used sassafras much the same way even driving those evil spirits away. Early settlers would put sassafras in their flooring and in their bedsteads.

Native American shamans would use it in a tonic to help women recover after giving birth and to cure rheumatism, fever, colds and venereal disease. They also consider it as a blood purifier. The Choctaw Indians used the sassafras as a seasoning and thickener in their food. The elders also held a belief that tea and an a oil made from the sassafras could extend one's life and make the body youthful again.

 The Choctaw tribe has a legend that is similar to the story of Noah's ark. As the same, a prophet foresaw a great flood and gave warnings but the people didn't believe him. The prophet created a raft made of sassafras and was saved when the flood came.

When Spanish explorers came to the Americas they became acquainted with sassafras and knew it as the ' ague tree.' There are legends that states that Christopher Columbus himself was drawn to the Americas when he smelled the scent of the sassafras.

Sassafras became a major colonial export being second to tobacco. Sir Walter Raleigh and John Smith got in on the action. Sir Raleigh controlled all exports of sassafras and in 1578 he took some to England from the Virginia Colony. In the 1600's John Smith sent sassafras back to England to be used for it's medicinal properties. The Plymouth colony was thought to be founded on exports of sassafras.

 Known as the Great Sassafras Hunts, in the 17th century England sent ships to the colonies in search of sassafras trees to build forts and other large buildings. The early settlers also would used the wood of the sassafras tree in their posts, small boats and ox yokes.

This new plant and it's flavor held the Europeans under it's spell for 200 years. During the bubonic plague, physicians would wear nose beaks made out of sassafras to ward off the disease. It was exploited though out the disease filled Europe to be used as a cure all for many ills. The flavor of the sassafras found it's way into the drinks of the Europeans as well. In London, a drink served in the shops of many London streets was called Saloop. It was a drink made out of sassafras tea laced with hot milk.

The Pennsylvania Dutch would place a piece of the sassafras root with their applesauce and apple butter as they cooked it to enhance the flavor and aroma. Housewives would place the root into their supplies of dry fruit. They found that sassafras kept the bugs and worms away allowing the dry fruit to be kept for years. It also would enhance the flavor of the dried fruit.

 Native American shamans would use sassafras in their ceremonies, cures and 'medicine workings'. Early settlers thought that if you buried money near the root of a Sassafras tree then it would bring prosperity. They also considered sassafras to have a strong protective and cleansing charm to it. They would burn it to ward off evil influences. The process of it being made into a tea made it a good tonic for love charms and potions.  The magical properties of the sassafras are healing, energy channeling, change, Goddess workings and fairy magic. The leaves were thought to be used to ward off not only evil spirits but those people that you don't want to be around. It was also used often in spells dealing with court cases because it was taught to be able to turn the tables in your favor. The wood was believed to be sacred to the witches and used in their fire ceremonies. Among some shamans sassafras was used in totem workings for finding your totem in ceremonial trance workings.

 For what Sassafras is known for is it was used in making root beer. Today sassafras isn't used in root beer because in the 1960's. the FDA banned the use of sassafras oil in commercially mass produced foods and drugs based on the testing on lab rats and rabbits. They found that the oil in vast amounts could cause cancer in the liver and cause miscarriages. The ban lasted until the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994. Pure sassafras oil is highly toxic, with reports that a little as one teaspoon of oil taken internally can kill an adult and a few drops can kill a toddler. Safrole, which is the term for the oil has been determined to be potentially hazardous at 0.66 mg / kg of a individual's body weight, which is an amount less that the dose found in sassafras tea.

So the question is, Is drinking Sassafras tea dangerous?

 I have researched and researched for the answer. The medicinal folklore has been tested with results that none of them are true. Where the largest amount of sassafras oil is located is in the roots of course. Try to avoid making tea out of the roots. The Native Americans spoke of using the leaves for tea and the roots for medicinal usage. Some research also came up with opinions that you would have to drink a large amount of sassafras tea for it to affect you. You can even find sassafras tea recipes on-line; either using the root or the leaves, even found one using stems and leaves. If you decided to make the tea out of the root then I would suggest that you don't make it a habit. You make the judgement yourself. Do the research before using ANY HERB OR PLANT internally.

So my suggestion is avoid using it for internal purposes as much as possible. The side effects of sassafras ' poison ' is vomiting, stupor and hallucinations.  If you experience these symptoms after consuming sassafras then immediately go to the doctor. It can also cause miscarriages, diaphoresis and dermatitis.

Using sassafras in some of your magic workings is still considered safe. Don't have white sage to use for
smudging? Get some sassafras leaves. Dry them out in a dark and dry place. Make a bundle and use for cleansing and purification purposes. Sassafras was thought to drive away evil spirits and even those individuals that you didn't or don't want around. Place some leaves and bark in your witch's jar. Also you can place leaves, bark and even a branch or twig in the windows and doors of your home for extra protection. Early settlers would bury money at the roots of the sassafras tree to bring prosperity. Wouldn't hurt.

Sassafras could not only be used to cleanse a place but at the same bring in prosperity. Prosperity maybe not be financially but prosperity as in bring an abundance of positive energy. Seeking out your totem animal? Use the wood or bark in a sacred fire or again in incense form to help you make that connection. You can also use a sassafras branch as besom until you can attain a traditional besom. If that's what you wish.

The list of magical properties and capabilities of the sassafras is long and makes it one of the jewels of the forest. A gift that I received at this year's Beltane Gathering.