It’s late Spring, and the young, vibrant, hand-shaped leaves had just emerged from their winter slumber. My body, too, has begun waking up after the long winter. With a four burst of speed, my feet ran along the softening, damp soil that looked bubbling from all the worm castings.
I stop and look up at a woodpecker flying through the canopy. It lands high in a hickory tree. Taking a deep breath in through my nose, I offer and silent “thanks” for this beautiful moment with the woodpecker, the hickory tree, and the entire communal forest and farm.
Reaching the potato field at the edge of the forest, I see sassafras far off in the distance, growing along the eastern edge of the horizon. Walking over, I have two things in mind. The first is this annoying canker sore in my lower mouth that won’t go away, and the second is a new bellyache from overeating bacon and eggs before running. I began to pick a few leaves, and after letting the slimy mess sit against my inner cheek, I swallowed. Wow, I think there’s an almost immediately noticeable difference in my feelings.
Many years pass of these barefooted traditions of traveling to the sassafras patch each Spring. It’s now 2020, and second graders and I have traveled again to where we gather sassafras. It was a warm and sunny day as I squatted at the edge of the fallow field full of flowering mustards and purple peas.
With a firm but loose grip, I removed my Swedish steel blade from its sheath and gathered the children around me. “Children, this plant is called sassafras.
The Lenape Indians named it Winawk.” I continued, “We’re here to experience this plant’s magic, wonder, and medicine. So go to your sassafras tree and speak to it. Ask if you can harvest the bark. If the plant says yes, then great, and offer a gift.”
“But Mr. Gordon,” one child said, “What kind of gift do you mean?”
At that moment, I plucked a hair from my head, smiled, and said, “Anything you offer can be a gift.”
Off they went, their feet scurrying in and out of the raised potato mounds. “They will remember this day for the rest of their long lives, I thought.
Perhaps the children will 6 one day even create a story about sassafras for their kids and how their smell brings a smile to all the animals who need help with a canker sore! With a basketful of leaves, I began backtracking down the dirt road to find my home and where I dry all our herbs.
Common name: Sassafras
Latin name: Sassafras albidum
- Safrole can reduce the mitochondrial membrane potential of human oral cancer cells.
- Combined with other compounds from naturally derived herbs, safrole is used for medical purposes, including antiviral medications.
- Safrole is found in other plants besides Sassafras albidum. Star anise, or Illicium verum, is the source of Tamiflu and contains safrole.
- Ethnobotany: The tribes of the area consider this plant excellent medicine, especially in the Springtime, when the blood has been stagnant from winter and hasn’t seen bright green and vibrant aromas since the previous summer.
- Tribes that use(d) this plant include Cherokee, Koasati, Choctaw, Chippewa, Creek, Delaware, Houma, and the Haudenosaunee. Documented use(s) have anthelminthic, antidiarrheal, antirheumatic, dermatological, blood medicine, cold remedy, dietary aid, eye medicine, oral aid, pediatric aid, venereal aid, hemostat, hypotensive, orthopedic aid, tonic, heart medicine, and food.
- Conservation Status: The State of Massachusetts considers this plant widespread (S-rank: S5).