Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras leaves are dried and ground to make file powder or gumbo file which is used in Louisiana cooking. Sassafras roots used to be one of the essential ingredients in root beer before it was banned due to large doses of safrole.
File powder has a sour taste with lemon and woody tones.
Sassafras leaves have a strong, citrus and fennel-like aroma while the roots smell camphor.
File powder is used in cooking of Louisiana in particular in Cajun and Creole soups and stews. It is an essential ingredient in gumbo, which is a spicy soup make with vegetables, seafood, meat and rice, as the file powder is used to thicken the dish. File powder turns tough and stringy once cooked so it is best added once the soup or stew is removed from the heat. Sassafras pairs with other ground herbs such as bay, oregano, sage and thyme and these herbs are often added to file powder.
Sassafras trees grow wild in Eastern North America. The trees grow from 30-60 feet tall, with mitten-shaped, two-pronged or three-pronged leaves and small yellow flowers. The trees are deciduous and the leaves are harvested in the Northern Hemisphere spring before being dried and ground.
Native Americans used sassafras to make tea from the bark, roots or leaves and was thought to ward off evil spirits. File powder’s ability to thicken soups and stews was founded by French Canadians introduced the Choctaw method into Louisiana. During the 17th century, sassafras was popular in England for its medicinal qualities and its wood and consequently was America’s second-largest export behind tobacco.
North American Indians used sassafras in herbal remedies. In more recent times, scientists have discovered that its analgesic and antiseptic properties can help with scurvy, skin sores, toothaches, bronchitis and sexually transmitted diseases.
Facts about Sassafras
The largest sassafras tree in the United States is 100 feet high and 21 feet in circumference.
Sassafras is eaten by white-tailed deer, groundhogs, rabbits and black bears.