This week's wild edible is Sassafras!
-Sassafras is a common plant in the Eastern US. The edible parts of this plant are the roots (which are often used for tea and beverages), young twigs and stems (fresh or dried), and the leaves (which when crushed can be used as a soup thickener). The tiny blue and black egg-shaped fruit are also edible, but are very bitter.
- This plant tends to grow as scrubby saplings throughout most of the region, although there are reports of mature trees growing up to heights as tall as 100ft. This plant prefers to grow in old fields and along the borders of woodlands.
-Some distinguishing features of this plant are the very specific leaf patterns. There are 3 specific leaf shapes on every tree. One has 3 lobes, another has two (also known as the “mitten” shape), and the other has one lobe. In the picture you can see all three patterns on this Sassafras sapling (the leaves are typically green, but this tree is in full autumn swing!) Another easy identifier is the smells. There are two very distinct smells sassafras trees possess. One is the leaves. When crushed, the leaves smell remarkably like fruit loops cereal. The second is the root. When cut into or broken, the roots smell exactly like old-fashioned root beer (this is because the oil in the roots was traditionally the main ingredient in root beer).
-Sassafras has a history of being a blood purifier and tonic. It is also a mild stimulant and thought to improve general mood and health over time. Another use for the plant is to shave the bark off of young twigs and use them as a toothbrush.
**WARNING** In a government study, very massive doses of safrole (the main component in the plants oil that gives it its taste and fragrance) were given to lab rats for a very long period of time. The breaking down of the safrole in the digestive system of the rat released the compound hydroxysafrole, which is carcinogenic for rats and caused them to obtain cancer. This study is very controversial because 1) the amount of safrole given to the rats is ridiculous. You could drink sassafras tea every day for the rest of your life and be nowhere close to the amount the rats were subject to. 2) hydroxysafrole is not created when humans digest safrole. Actually, many chemicals similar to safrole have even been proven to help prevent humans from getting cancer. It should be noted that there are no proven cases of humans getting cancer from ingesting sassafras.
**When identifying plants you are unfamiliar with, please use as multiple references, as well as help from experts when available. Unless you are 110% sure what a plant is, it is best to avoid it completely.
**If you plan on using any plants for medicinal uses, consult a healthcare professional, as well as botanist familiar in the field of wild plants. And as always, use as many references and expert opinions as possible when identifying a plant.
**Be sure to avoid any plants growing near roads, around chemicals, other poisonous plants, or polluted/contaminated water.
**As always, be sure to use the Universal Edibility Test to ensure the plant is the correct plant and to help identify any unknown allergies you may have.