COLUMN: The frazzled past of sassafras

By Candace Nelson - 3:30 PM

My latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail is out: 

What do root beer, gumbo, the FDA and medicinal tea have in common?


As the best-named plant (I think), sassafras has lived many lives over the last several centuries even though its modern-day use is limited. Let’s start with the basics, though.

What even is sassafras? Sassafras is a perennial tree found in much of eastern North America, with Appalachia located right in the center of the plant’s natural range The leaves can be found in various shapes: football, mittens (left- or right-handed), and three lobes.

During the fall, the plant's unique leaves turn all shades of orange, yellow and red. From its roots and bark to its leaves and fruit, all parts of the sassafras plant have been used - either culinarily, medicinally, aromatically or otherwise.


Many Native Americans used sassafras to treat a number of ailments, including fevers, scurvy, hypertension, dysentery and more. Sometimes the leaves would be used directly on a wound, while other times the root bark would be made into a tea. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s and learned of sassafras, they began shipping it to Europe where its popularity as a wonder drug exploded and rivaled the exports of tobacco. They are also most commonly credited with naming the plant.

Root Beer

In 1875, pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires commercialized his version of “root tea” made from sassafras in Philadelphia. But in an effort to appeal to Pennsylvania coal miners, he used the name “root beer” instead. One early competitor to Hires, Barq’s, began selling a root beer made with sarsaparilla instead of sassafras. Sarsaparilla is a perennial trailing vine with prickly stems that produces similar flavors to sassafras when combined with birch, mint, nutmeg, honey, licorice and clove.


In the 1960s, the American Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras and sarsaparilla for commercial food production because research showed that the active ingredient safrole could cause cancer in rats during laboratory studies. Neither ingredient is now found in modern root beers; instead, they have been replaced with artificial sassafras, anise, wintergreen and others. Most root beers found in North America are also non-alcoholic, caffeine-free and carbonated.


One of the few uses of sassafras today is in the Louisiana Creole cuisine dish, gumbo. The thick soup or stew that is often served over rice uses filé powder (or filé gumbo), which is made of dried young leaves and stems of the sassafras tree. The filé powder helps thicken the gumbo and lends a spicy deep, earthy flavor. While sassafras is not always used in the same ways it was in the past, its essence is still alive in dishes and drinks we consume today. West Virginia sits directly inside the plant’s natural growth area, but it spreads far and wide, making sassafras known to many across Appalachia and beyond.

Have you ever tried sassafras?

  • Share:

You Might Also Like


All work property of Candace Nelson. Powered by Blogger.