Don't get sassy with me, just drink your sassafras tea

In the Garden with Mr. Bee

November 24, 2011|By Lou Boulmetis, hippodromehatter@aol.com

The bright red and yellow-orange leaves on 8-foot trees were my first clue that a clump of sassafras trees had taken root in a drainage ditch. Once I spotted the mitten-shaped leaves, I knew it was just a matter of time before I'd be sitting next to a fire with a home-brewed cup of sassafras tea in one hand and a gardening book in the other.

I first learned about sassafras tea as a Boy Scout. American colonists first learned about it from native Americans who used it mostly to relieve pain and fever.

It's brewed from the roots of the sassafras tree and tastes somewhat similar to root beer. Like coffee, it's also a stimulant.

During the 18th century, demand for sassafras tea was so strong in England that sassafras roots became a leading export. In fact, sassafras roots were the first important export to England from its North American colonies.

Easy to grow

Sassafras tress, also known as chewing-stick trees and cinnamon-wood trees, are "deciduous" (leaf-losing) trees native to Asia and North America. They grow wild from Canada to Florida, sometimes getting as tall as 90 feet. Here, they grow in clumps as understory trees that typically get no taller than 40 feet.

Sassafras trees can be grown in lawns as landscape specimen, too, in full sun where soil drains freely, providing saplings are sometimes mowed and branches are periodically pruned.

My cup of tea

I prepare sassafras tea — tasty when served hot or cold — by harvesting, washing and pealing sassafras roots at any time of year. Then I boil the roots until the water turns red. Debris is removed with a strainer.

Sassafras roots that have been boiled to make one pot of tea can be refrigerated or frozen and then re-boiled to make subsequent pots of tea.

I uprooted a 3-foot sassafras sapling and harvested its roots. The tea turned out terrific, and I can't wait to wash down some holiday deserts with future batches.

This week in the garden

I typically wait until the foliage of perennials turns yellow and then brown prior to cutting it back, because the root systems of perennial plants are fed during this process. But perennial foliage killed by early frosts has caused me to cut back our beds sooner.

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