The Tree with Red Mittens
For as long as anyone can remember, the sassafras tree has followed the tumbled down fence rows of the Ozarks, wandering into overgrown fields where cows once grazed on bright June mornings. When autumn rides the ridge tops and slips into the hollows, the sassafras tree changes clothes first, flaunting its scarlet on September roadsides. But in times past it was when March winds blew and the peepers called from puddles and ponds, that sassafras got our attention. It was time for sassafras tea.
In years past, Ozarkers depended on the land for everything. In "Ozark Magic and Folklore," Vance Randolph quotes an old timer saying, "...Out in the woods there's plants that will cure all kinds of sickness, and all we got to do is hunt for 'em." And hunt they did ...especially for sassafras. They used the tea as a spring tonic to refresh the spirit and tone up the system.
An early Ozark ballad went, "In the spring of the year when the blood is too thick, there is nothing so fine as a sassafras stick." An old doctor of the Ozark hills put so much stock in the tonic, he told his patients if they drank sassafras tea three times a day in February and March, he'd doctor them the rest of the year for $5.
The Ozarker's recipe for sassafras tea was a simple one:
One cup shredded sassafras bark to one quart of water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the tea takes on the color of tawny port (10 to 12 minutes). Sweeten to taste with sugar or honey. History records that some folks added small amounts of May apple, wild cherry or goldenseal to their tea, but most people "took it neat."
Sassafras has a long history outside the Ozarks as well. Around this tree hovered not only hopes of curative powers, but promises of wealth and fame to those who exploited it. The root, called pauame by Native Americans, was one of the first exports from the new world back to England. Long before pioneer children drank their spring tonic, sassafras earned its fame from its highly prized oil, used for years to flavor candies, root beer, soap and perfume. The oil was extracted from the roots and stumps of the trees. In 1610, sassafras was so highly prized that England was demanding sassafras oil from the colony of Virginia as a condition of charter.