Herbs in alphabetical order
Sassafras is a plant whose virtues are almost uniformly praised by modern herbalists. A tea prepared from the root bark of this native American tree, Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees of the family Lauraceae, is widely recommended as a spring tonic and "blood thinner." The root bark was being used to treat fevers by the natives of Florida prior to 1512 and formed one of the earliest exports of the New World. It still enjoys a considerable reputation as a stimulant, antispasmodic, sudorific (sweat producer), depurative ("purifier") and as treatment for rheumatism, skin diseases, syphilis, typhus, dropsy (fluid accumulation), and so on.
Much of the persistent reputation of sassafras may no doubt be attributed to its pleasant taste and aroma. Sassafras contains up to 9% of a volatile oil which, in turn, consists of about 80% safrole. For years it was a valued flavoring agent in root beer and similar beverages. But as a result of research conducted in the early 1960s, safrole was recognized as a carcinogenic agent in rats and mice. Sassafras bark, sassafras oil, and safrole are now prohibited by the FDA from use as flavors or food additives.
Unfortunately, sassafras continues to be collected, used, sold, and written about as an herbal remedy. No one really knows just how harmful it is to human beings, but it has been estimated that one cup of strong sassafras tea could contain as much as 200 mg of safrole, more than four times the minimal amount believed hazardous to man if consumed on a regular basis.
Some manufacturers, recognizing the attractive flavor and aroma of sassafras, have attempted to overcome its toxicity by preparing a safrole-free extract of the root bark. Such efforts were probably doomed to failure from the start since safrole is the major component responsible for the desirable odor and taste of the plant. However, an even more serious drawback has been revealed. Recent studies have shown that even safrole-free sassafras produced tumors in two-thirds of the animals treated with it. Apparently other constituents in addition to safrole are responsible for part of the root bark's carcinogenic activity.
An overriding consideration in this entire matter of the safety and efficacy of sassafras is that the plant material has no really significant medical or therapeutic utility. Sassafras oil, in common with a large number of volatile oils, does possess some mild counterirritant properties on external application, but beyond these, none of the claims of its supporters has been documented in the modern medical literature. In spite of its pleasant flavor and its folkloric reputation as a useful tonic, prudent people will avoid this medication because of its potentially harmful qualities.
Sassafras is used primarily in skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis. As another aspect of its undoubted systemic activity, sassafras may be used with benefit in the treatment of rheumatism and gout. As a diaphoretic sassafras may be used in fevers and systemic infections. Sassafras has a disinfectant action and makes a valuable mouthwash and dentifrice. Sassafras acts as a specific to combat head lice and other body infestations.
Sassafras root bark was long considered a virtual cure-all, but only its effectiveness in relieving intestinal gas and as a diuretic have been substantiated. Because of the designation as "unsafe," the bark is no longer sold or used commercially, nor should it be used by anyone.
When the Spanish arrived in Florida in the early 16th century, they mistook the fragrant sassafras for a cinnamon tree, an error still perpetuated in one of the tree's common names. The local Indians used the bark of its roots to treat fevers and rheumatism, and as a general tonic and "blood purifier"-a medicine that by causing urination and sweating cleanses the blood of "impurities" once thought to cause a range of ailments from skin diseases to malaria. Word of sassafras's amazing curative powers reached Europe, and for a time it became a major colonial export, second only to tobacco. The Europeans also discovered sassafras tea, and it soon became a fashionable beverage. A growing (but unjustified) reputation as a cure for syphilis cost sassafras its respectability, however, and as a result, its economic importance.
An oil extracted from the tree remained in use as an antiseptic for dentistry and as a flavoring for toothpastes, root beer, and chewing gum until the early 1960's. At that time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that the chemical compound safrole, found in the oil of the root bark, was a potential carcinogen.
HABITAT AND CULTIVATION
Sassafras is native of eastern North America; sassafras is found from Ontario south to Florida and Texas and as far west as Missouri.
HOW MUCH TO TAKE
Infusion: pour a cup of boiling water onto 1 - 2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb and
leave to infuse for 10 - 15 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day.
COLLECTION AND HARVESTING
The root is unearthed to gather this herb, which grows over large areas of North America.