It is amazing how popularity of certain herbs has changed over time. Sassafras, an aromatic tree native to the Eastern United States and a member of the Laurel family, was at one time the most important export plant of the newly founded colony of Virginia. The demand in London exceeded that of tobacco and it was commonly available at any street corner as a breakfast drink, sweetened with milk and sugar. Today it is difficult to find the herb at all, although a compound beverage of Sarsaparilla and Sassafras is still a popular blood cleansing tonic, particularly appreciated among the Caribbean community of South London. Its popularity may partly be attributed to the fact that Sassafras was hailed as a miracle cure for Syphilis. However, the beverage still remained popular even after it became apparent that it may not be as effective for this purpose as had been promised. In the United States it was, and still is, one of the most popular herb teas, especially in the southern States, where not only the root bark, but also the leaves, young sprouts and berries are used. The leaves are used as a spice to flavour 'Gumbo', the national soul food dish of the deep South. Sassafras originally also provided the distinctive flavour of Root Beer (now derived from synthetic sources). All Native American tribes who live within the range of this tree have made ample use of it as food, medicine and for sacred purposes. Until recently an essential oil of Sassafras was commonly available on the market, until it was found to contain a very high concentration of safroles, which have been found to cause cancer in rats and mice and are said to be toxic to the liver. Another reason why it was banned is probably due to the fact that it could be used as a basis for making MDMA, popularly known as Ecstasy. However, normal amounts of Sassafras tea are neither toxic nor have any psychedelic effects.
Sassafras is considered one of the best blood cleansing tonics. It acts diaphoretic and diuretic and gently stimulates and warms the entire system. It is used for many conditions that are believed to be caused by excessive cold - not just the common cold, coughs and bronchial complaints, but also rheumatism and urinary infections. It is anti spasmodic and was used to treat cramps of the digestive and uterine systems. It was used to boost the immune system and ward off infectious diseases. Early colonists learnt its uses from the Native Americans - they applied the chewed leaves to fresh wounds and used the flowers as a fever tea. They also used it before and after a visit to the brothel - beforehand, to stimulate sexual appetite and afterwards to cure any possible ill effects. However, it seems that the 'before' use was more effective than the 'after' use. Do not use during pregnancy.
Sassafras is considered strongly protective and cleansing. It can be used as incense to ward off evil influences. As a tea it makes a good ritual tonic. It is frequently added to love charms and potions. Its warming, stimulating and aphrodisiac qualities make it very suitable for sex magic and tantric rituals. Native Americans also used to smoke the root bark.
Not all herbs are suitable in pregnancy, breastfeeding or for young children, or if you are unwell, or taking any medication. If in doubt, please ask a medical herbalist or healthcare practitioner.