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The Tree with Red Mittens

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

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.

Europeans held sassafras in the same high regard as the spices of Araby. Such reverence stemmed from an old belief that strong fumes had curative powers. During the bubonic plague, physicians wore nose beaks of potent spices, such as sassafras, to ward off the disease. Sassafras also was popular as a drink and, in the past, shops on London street corners served up "saloop," a drink made of sassafras tea laced with hot milk.

The scientific name for the sassafras tree is Sassafras albidum. The tree is also called saxifrax, sassafrac, gumbo filé, green stick, cinnamon wood and golden elm. Sassafras belongs to the laurel family and is one of the few species of trees that has more than one kind of leaf on the same plant. On old boughs, the leaves are small and either boat- or trident-shaped; on the young trees where vigorous growth occurs, the leaves take on their familiar mitten shape with one "thumb" lobe blending into a larger terminal lobe. This leaf is unique among flora and can be mistaken for nothing else, except perhaps the mulberry leaf. But in comparison, the mulberry's mittens are thin, dull green and many-toothed.

In early spring, the tree produces rather inconspicuous yellow blossoms; leafing out is late. In the fall, the waxy green leaves of summer give way to a mixed pallet of blood orange, vermillion and salmon. When the leaves are at their most beautiful, sassafras trees produce deep blue berries called drupes that are relished by bluebirds, robins, bobwhite, red-eyed vireos and pileated woodpeckers.

The sassafras tree never depended on dense forest land, a fact that has allowed it to increase its range. In fact, it is most at home along fence rows and in old pastures. It spreads by putting out underground runners that allow clumps of trees to spring up seemingly overnight. Many an Ozark farmer has shaken his head in dismay at a spritely column of sassafras trees marching along a fence row he cleared only a season or two ago.

In the north, sassafras is a small tree, clinging to life as a mere shrub on the shifting dunes along Lake Michigan. In the Ozarks, it grows to heights of 15 to 20 feet or more, with a life span of 30 to 60 years. Further south, sassafras can grow to heights of 80 feet or more, with trunks up to 6 feet thick. Today, the world's largest sassafras tree is in Owensboro, Ky. With a circumference of 21 feet, this giant is thought to be between 250 and 300 years old.

It was not until the 1950s that the superstitions surrounding sassafras began to lose their hold. Rumor had it that sassafras tea could make you sick. Then in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration made it official. Safrole, the major chemical in sassafras oil, was hepatocarcinogenic, meaning studies in lab animals confirmed it caused liver cancer. In 1976, the FDA officially banned the sale of sassafras tea, its roots and the oil. Only filé powder, made from the safrole-free leaves and used as a seasoning in Creole cooking, would be allowed to stay on the market. People were warned that it was not possible to make a safrole-free product at home. An age-old custom was relegated to our long American past.

So now we know Grandma's sassafras tea wasn't good for us, and we must give it up because we have learned new things about it.

We can endure without it. After all, it wasn't so much Grandma's sassafras tea that revived us after a long, Ozark winter, it, was really the miracle of another spring brewing in the sleeping woods

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