Sassafras is an amazing native North American decidious tree that is easy to grow, has many uses, and can be cultivated for commercial use relatively easy.
Growth habits and identification: Sassafras grows in groves. The trees are usually around 40 feet or so when mature, small ones are often rather spindly. Ideally you want to locate the young saplings or some of the suckers on the margins of the grove. The trees are pretty easy to identify in summer because of the mitten shaped leaves they have–although the same tree may also have some three lobed and non-lobed leaves too. The best way to make sure you have found the right tree is rub the leaves and smell! Both the leaves and the bark have a citrus scent. In the dormant season they can be identified by the bark which has deep grooves and rounded, finger wide, ridges.
Uses: For many years the oil from Sassafras was used in as the primary flavoring agent for root beer. However some research suggests that the oil, called “safrole ” is carcinogenic, and is no longer used for root beer. The dried leaves are ground to make filé, which is used in filé gumbo. It is still used in Sarsaparilla, and is considered by some a valuable medicinal. Medicinally, sassafras is used as a stimulant, pain reliever, astringent, skin tonic, and treatment for rheumatism. The pith can be used to sooth eye inflammation. Other uses include as a scent for soaps, as an insect repellant, and the twigs and leaves can be used to make a beautiful yellow dye. The wood is good for making posts, and for woodworking projects, as it is durable and fairly rot resistant.
How to harvest the roots: Dig in spring before leaves appear or in fall after the trees are dormant. Simply dig up some of the suckers or small saplings, using your shovel or maddock. Take care to leave the outer bark on the roots, as this is the part that contains the oils you are seeking.
How to extract the oil: Wash the roots. Use a potato peeler or sharp knife to remove the root bark. Dry the shavings in a dehydrator or oven for several hours at low heat (200 degrees should do it). Put the bark in a pot with about an inch of water covering it. Simmer for 4 or more hours. The oils will naturally float to the top of the water. Let the pot come to room temperature, then place it the refrigerator for up to a day. Skim the congealed oils off of the top. You can put the hardened oils in a pot to warm up so you can pour them in your bottle. Store in a dark place for longevity.
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