CHEROKEE EATS: Sassafras Tea

BY LINDSEY BARK
Reporter
11/18/2020 11:00 AM
Video Frame selected by Cherokee Phoenix
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee Nation citizen Roberta Sapp finds a sassafras tree near her home in Kenwood. She gathers limbs from the tree each year in the fall to make tea for medicinal purposes. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee Nation citizen Roberta Sapp shows how she prepares the limbs for sassafras tea by removing the leaves and breaking the limbs into 2- to 3-inch pieces. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A handful or more of sassafras is used to make tea by boiling them in water. Sassafras tea is used for medicinal purposes in the Cherokee culture. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
When sassafras tea is done, it will turn the water either a dark yellow or red color. It is best to drink the tea hot and sugar or honey can be added for taste. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
KENWOOD – Most Cherokees find a significant food to gather or hunt for each season throughout the year. One that is used for its medicinal properties is sassafras.

Cherokee Nation citizen Roberta Sapp learned from her grandfather how to identify the plant and prepare it as a tea.

Though it can be found year-round on a small tree, Sapp uses sassafras mostly in the fall and winter.

Gathering: “My grandpa would go get it every fall and all during the winter, and that’s where I learned how to do it and that’s when I started drinking it,” Sapp said.

Sassafras is recognized in the fall by its green and bright yellow leaves.

“Sassafras is like a bush out in the wood. Right now you can locate by looking at the leaves. A lot of the leaves are yellow and green. It’s pretty easy to find, especially in the fall,” she said.

Sapp said she breaks off limbs and smells it to ensure that it is sassafras.

“When I go out to pick it, I break the sticks off and I smell it. Usually you can smell it real good, that way you know it’s the right stick you’re picking.”
Cleaning: When enough is gathered, Sapp picks off the leaves and smaller limbs and begins breaking the larger limbs into 2- or 3-inch pieces.

About a handful of sticks will suffice to make about three to four cups of tea. But more can always be added.

Cooking: “Put them in a pan and boil them. The water will turn yellow and that’s when you know it’s ready. I drink it as hot as I can,” Sapp said.

She places the sticks into a medium pot, fills with enough water to cover the sticks and boils the mixture for about 30 minutes or until the water colors.

Sapp mostly finds sassafras that makes yellow tea.

“You make it as a tea. There’s a yellow kind, and that’s all I’ve been able to find. There’s a red kind, and I haven’t been able to find that but I’m going to go look for it,” she said.

Once the tea is done, it can be poured straight into a cup without straining from the sticks. Sugar or honey can be added for taste if preferred.

“You don’t have to put sugar in it, but you can sweeten it up a little bit if you want. My sister said she uses honey. I put a spoon of honey in it the other day and it’s good, but I’d rather drink it just like it is,” Sapp said.

Medicinal properties: Sapp said she learned from her grandfather that sassafras tea is good for certain ailments or sickness and that’s why he always gathered and drank it in the fall and winter.

“Sassafras is good for your blood. It’s good for fevers and it’s good for colds,” she said.

She said her grandfather also added another traditional plant to sassafras tea called spice wood. Thought she doesn’t know much about it, she wants to learn and eventually gather and use it. “I remember my brother used to go pick another kind, not a root, but the sticks were called spice wood and my grandpa would mix them. When you’re younger you don’t pay attention to any of that. I wished I had asked more questions.”
About the Author
Lindsey Bark grew up and resides in the Tagg Flats community in Delaware County. She graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, emphasizing ...
lindsey-bark@cherokee.org • 918-772-4223
Lindsey Bark grew up and resides in the Tagg Flats community in Delaware County. She graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, emphasizing ...

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