Sassy Sassafras


My granddad Elmer learned a lot from the Five Civilized Tribes…medicine, ceremonial dancing and how to survive.

After his mother died giving birth to him and his twin sister, his sister was sent to live with relatives in the Pacific Northwest. Elmer headed to Indian Territory, Oklahoma, in a covered wagon with his mother’s brother and his wife. He was two weeks old, and the year was 1884.

Native American Ways

Indian Territory consisted of the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles, along with twenty-two other tribes.

Elmer got along well with his Native American neighbors. They trusted him enough to let him dance with them whenever he wanted. They taught him their secrets of survival, like how to use roots, leaves, bark and plants to make medicines.

He used that knowledge for his family, and for others, his whole life. The longevity his eleven children enjoyed speaks for the wisdom of those natural preventives.

Case in point – my mother. She’s 86 years young and still bakes the best pies you ever tasted, does her own grocery shopping, drives thousands of miles by herself and can still cut a rug when she really wants to.

She’s Elmer’s eighth child, and one of the tonics she grew up on was sassafras tea.

Thinning (purifying) the blood

Elmer insisted that his family members drink sassafras tea liberally every spring to thin their blood after the long, harsh Oklahoma and Missouri winters.

Sassafras trees, with their irregular lobed leaves and aromatic bark, grew wild and plentiful in the woods. Elmer gathered roots every spring. After thoroughly cleaning a root, or hunks ofSassafrass Roots root, he placed it in a pot of water to boil. Soon, the water turned a beautiful clear pink. When the family was fortunate enough to buy sugar, they added it to the spicy tea, along with fresh cow cream.

It didn’t take much persuasion for eleven little country kids to want to start thinning their blood and ridding themselves of their sluggish winter bodies!

As a very young child, I remember seeing a pan on my grandma’s stove with a big tree root poking out of the top. That was fascinating! The tea tasted wonderful, and I wanted lots and lots.

Later on, when I was a teenager and more snooty sophisticated, I doubted my granddad’s theory about sassafras tea thinning the blood.

How ridiculous, I thought.

Pure folklore.

Dumb.

Then I grew enough brain cells to check it out for myself.

I found out that sassafras tea is recognized as a natural anticoagulant.

Anticoagulant = blood thinner. Fancy that.

Ever notice how much smarter grownups got after our teen years?

In early America, sassafras and tobacco were the main exports from the colonies to England. Sassafras was revered for its medicinal qualities, as well as for the beauty of its wood.

Alas, sassafras tree byproducts, including sassafras tea, are controversial these days, which is why it isn’t the main ingredient in root beer anymore.

The dried and ground sassafras leaves are still used to make filé powder for certain types of gumbo.

And lots of people just go right on using the mysterious tree’s bark, leaves and roots.

A good argument in favor of doing that might be my granddad. He lived into his eighties with no medicines other than the natural ones he learned from The Five Civilized Tribes. He hand-delivered all of his eleven children, survived total economic depression with nothing but his two hands to make a living and played a mean banjo and fiddle with no lessons.

Maybe there really is something to “thinning the blood” with sassafras tea every spring. You think?

Have you ever tasted sassafras tea? Did you know it was the main flavoring in root beer at one time, or that some people thought of the sassafras tree as the root beer tree? Did your family use any old-timey “medicines” that didn’t come from a pharmacy? Tell us about it. We’d love to hear about it!

 

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Jodi Lea Stewart was born in Texas and grew up in Apache County on a cattle ranch near Concho, Arizona. She left the University of Arizona in Tucson to move to San Francisco, where she learned about peace, love and exactly what she didn't want to do with her life. Since then, Jodi graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Business Management, raised two children, worked as an electro-mechanical drafter, penned humor columns for a college periodical, wrote regional western articles and served as managing editor of a Fortune company newsletter. She currently resides in Texas and New Mexico with her husband, two Standard poodles, two rescue cats and numerous gigantic, bossy houseplants. Silki, the Girl of Many Scarves: SUMMER OF THE ANCIENT is her first novel. CANYON OF DOOM is her second novel in the Silki, the Girl of Many Scarves series.

12 thoughts on “Sassy Sassafras

  1. Kristy Lyseng

    Great post, Jodi! I can’t imagine what it would have been like growing up with 11 siblings, or giving birth to them. Two siblings is enough for me! ;) My family stuck to traditional medicines you find in the drugstore. The only thing strange in our household was some of the phrases and foods.

    Reply
  2. Jan

    Thanks for sharing all the tidbits about the family. I was only 9 when we lost Grandpa & really don’t know all that much about him. We just didn’t get to see everyone very often, so learning their stories is cathartic for me. Bring ‘em on! :-)

    Reply
  3. Cora Ramos

    Every year I go through heavy physical changes from spring to summer. I’m getting me some of that sassafras tea! I’ll let you know how it works. Great post. Thanks for the advice.

    Reply
  4. Barbara Forte Abate

    Love this post,Jodi! Thank you for sharing such a memorable story. (And I’m pretty sure I have a mad crush on Elmer :-D )

    There is so much lost wisdom from generations past and it’s such a wonderful gift to check-in with the wise ways of ancestors who clearly had a good idea of what does a body good! I’ve had sassafras tea, but it was long long ago, and I question if it was even the real deal. This is absolutely something I want to savor for myself.

    My mother is the oldest of 11 children and has a slew of wonderful old remedies from back in the day.I just wish I’d paid more attention when pots of odd things were brewing on the stove, and wild growing things were gathered and prepared in ways I’ve long forgotten.

    Reply
    1. Jodi Lea Stewart Post author

      My goodness, Barbara. We have a few things in common, don’t we? Your mom’s perspective from being the eldest of eleven children has to be fascinating. I’ll bet she worked her little fingers to the bone!

      Maybe some of the other siblings can remember the old remedies and help you to catalog them? It would be a shame to lose those precious memories.

      And you have a crush on “Elmer” all you want. My grandma, Ollie Pearl, God rest her soul, could have used a breather…believe me!! :D

      Reply
  5. Kim Griffin

    Love this post! There is such wisdom in the generations past and using nature to remedy their bodies and keep them in balance.

    I use natural remedies as much as I can – growing them in the garden when I can and getting them from Mountain Rose Herbs when I can’t. I have heard of sassafras tea but haven’t tried it. I think I will now!

    Reply
    1. Jodi Lea Stewart Post author

      Kim, you are already way down the road in using natural remedies. I like a mixture of modern science and old natural medicines, don’t you? I hope you share your opinion when you try sassafras tea. It’s quite different from any other tea, and I used to love it. Bet you will, too!

      Reply

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