At the end of a hot day of floating down the river, many campers cool off with a glass of iced sassafras tea. Half the fun is finding and gathering sassafras trees along Missouri’s rivers and streams. With its distinct flavor, sassafras has been used for centuries to season Creole cooking and various dishes, as a thickener for soups and root beer gets its name from the oil extracted from sassafras roots. But its roots make an amazing tea and provided you can find sassafras trees on your next float trip, a simple recipe ensures you’ll enjoy a tall glass sooner than you think. The trick is to know how to identify sassafras leaves.
Sassafras trees grow in eastern North America and eastern Asia. Sassafras trees have many slender branches with smooth, orange-brown bark and can grow anywhere between 50 to 120 feet. Mature sassafras trees are better for making tea since young sassafras leaves and twigs are tough and gooey. Young leaves and twigs also have a citrus-like scent when you crush them. Sassafras foliage is quite ornamental and appealing with leaves that emerge in three different shapes. Sassafras leaves are either shaped like a mitten, oval or have three separate lobes and all three shapes can happen on a single branch. Leaf lengths can be between 4 and 7 inches with medium green on their upper sides and a whitish hue on their undersides. In the fall sassafras leaves change to yellow, orange or red before they fall. Sassafras tree bark is reddish brown while the bark on its twigs much smoother and green.
Drinking sassafras tea in moderate amounts is a pleasant and relaxing experience and is as simple as infusing a handful of the dried roots or leaves in boiling water. To make your own sassafras tea on your next float trip, gather 4 ¼ inches of sassafras root or put differently, 4 pieces of sassafras root that’s ¼ inch in diameter. Wash the roots and cut off any green saplings and where the root ends. Bring two quarts of water to a boil and add the roots. Simmer the roots until the water is deep brownish-red, allowing the sassafras tea to steep in a covered container for 15 to 20 minutes. The darker the water, the stronger the tea will be. It’s a good idea to bring a wire strainer or coffee filters to rid your tea of sediment. If you like your tea sweetened, add sugar or honey to your liking. Sassafras tea can be served hot or cold with lemon and a sprig of mint.
Like any drink, sassafras tea should be consumed in moderation and the FDA recommends pregnant women refrain from drinking sassafras tea. Sassafras tea is said to be a blood thinner and a blood purifier, alleviates bronchitis, has commonly been used as a diaphoretic during periods of cold and flu, extracts toxins from the body, a diuretic and is also useful fighting rheumatic and arthritic conditions.
Missourians have enjoyed sassafras tea for centuries. End your next float trip with a tea party by brewing your own sassafras tea.