Once upon a time, sassafras ruled the world – or at least early America. Its branches were used as toothbrushes; its leaves and roots were used to make tea and sweets; and just about every part was thought to heal something or other, from fevers to scurvy and gout. Word spread to Europe, and soon early explorers like Bartholomew Gosnold were exporting so much of the root beer-flavored tree that it was the Island’s top export for nearly a century. All good things must come to an end, however – and if time doesn’t ensure it then syphilis will. After sassafras gained popularity as an STD treatment, no one wanted to be seen with the stuff.
These days sassafras still gets a bad rap. Formerly the primary ingredient in root beer, it was banned by the FDA in 1960 when studies showed the active oil in the plant, safrole, caused cancer in rats. Some say the study was flawed – you’d need to drink a near insane amount of root beer to mimic the results in humans. Still, safrole oil can be dangerous. So, please, watch your sassafras.
Where to look: Sassafras trees are tall, spindly, and readily found in Island forests. Look for bright green leaves of three different shapes: oval, mitten-like, and trilobate.
How to use: The leaves can be dried and ground into filé powder; the twigs can be chewed or simmered to make a lemony tea; and the roots can be boiled with spices to make a (literal) root beer syrup.
Give me some root beer/Give me some root beer/Cold beer, root beer/Here a mug, there a mug, everybody chug-a-lug. – The Beach Boys