The early Spring of the year is past and early Summer it seems, has taken hold. This brings up thoughts of Spring tonics and other Spring practices. Cleaning, fixing, and starting anew. Though I want to focus on the uses of the wood of this lovely native, shrubby tree, I also want to wade through it's amazing uses in all the other realms it occupies. So let's meet Sassafras albidum, Sassafras, Winauk, cinnamon wood, ague tree, sassafrax, or saloop.
This native tree is rife with folklore, medicinal and culinary uses. I love it, and I have to say, though some accuse me of saying this of every plant I meet, it is truly one of my most favorites. Sassafras is a native memeber of the Lauraceae family, and is one of three extant species. Early European colonists in America noted that the plant was called winauk by Native Americans in Delaware and Virginia and pauane by the Timucua. Native Americans distinguished between white sassafras and red sassafras, which to be clear refers to the same plant but to different parts with distinct colors and uses(1). Sassafras albidum is a fairly common "weed tree" which ranges from southern Maine and southern Ontario west to Iowa, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas, in North America. It is also a key ingredient in Appalachian Spring tonics.
In Appalachian folk medicine, you can think of blood like the sap of a person. It rises in Spring and falls in Winter. It can be augmented and moved by taking certain herbs and tonics. A tonic being an herbal preparation that is used for the maintenance of health rather than the acute treatment of symptoms of a disease. That's how I think of it.
To move the slow blood of Winter in Spring, there were many traditional plant medicines taken and prepared in the mountains. Some of the tastiest are sassafras, spicebush, cherry bark, and black or sweet birch. Bitter herbs also make up the other class of Spring tonics. Dandelion, burdock, dock, poke, wild onion, ramp, strong tea of red clover blossoms, yellow root, and nettles all share mineral rich or liver support properties. Or, well, they are at least very pungent.
Sassafras is often easily identified by its unique leaf shapes, for it has what is botanically known as heterophylly, or multiple leaf shapes on one plant. It has the single lobe, the two lobbed “mitten”, and the three lobbed “dinosaur” foot as I likes to call it. I have even recently found a 5 lobed sassafras on Mill Ridge in WNC.
It was used by First Nations folks in our bioregion and eventually passed into settler use as well. It was touted as a blood cleanser and included in recipes for the Spring tonics with plants like spicebush (Lindera benzoin), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and other fragrant or bitter herbs.
The modern herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner (Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Brewers Publications, 1998) says:
"Sassafras was the original herb used in all “root” beers. They were all originally alcoholic, and along with a few other medicinal beers — primarily spruce beers — were considered “diet” drinks, that is, beers with medicinal actions intended for digestion, blood tonic action and antiscorbutic properties. The original “root” beers contained sassafras, wintergreen flavorings (usually from birch sap), and cloves or oil of cloves. Though Rafinesque notes [in 1829] the use of leaves and buds, the root bark is usually used, both traditionally and in contemporary herbal practice."
In Appalachia, its uses were first shared with Spanish and Europeans settlers. It had a myriad of uses to the Cherokee as a tea. The Cherokee even used it for weight reduction, which passed into use by European settlers and is still present today in the folk lexicon. Sassafras was one of the first plants exported to Europe from the New World in bulk, for it came to be thought of as a panacea and was also enjoyed as a social beverage with milk and sugar in European coffee houses. Indeed it was even thought to cure syphilis, and was second only to mercury in its application until it was decided that it did little to stop the ‘social disease’. If only Tom Doula had known...
As an amulet, wearing pieces of the sliced root around the neck was said to aid in the pain of teething, while wearing a bag of the same was a charm to prevent general illness. In North Carolina, carrying some root pieces in one’s pocket would produce the same effect. In some African American conjure traditions, it is associated with financial affairs. Placing a piece of the root in a purse or wallet is said to prevent one’s money from running out.
Interestingly enough, there are also taboo’s surrounding not just the root but the wood. To burn sassafras was deemed unlucky, and in Kentucky, it was believed that burning the wood or even leaves of the sassafras would surely cause the transgressor's mules or horses to die. It is difficult to discover where this belief originates, for it was noted among Native and settlers alike. The wood had further uses as a stirring stick for making soap in the dark of the moon and to build beds that would protect the sleeper from disturbances from witches and other evil spirits. Ships built with sassafras hulls were deemed safe from shipwreck, while chicken coops built with sassafras roosting poles were reputedly free of lice. Sassafras' fresh, fragrant leaves were also used to pack away winter clothing to keep away moths.
Certain medicine men among the Cherokee also used the root magically. They would chew it and rub it upon their faces and hands after being exposed to a sick person, whether biologically or spiritually, to safeguard their own magical abilities. It functions as a cleanser of "bad" or "sick" energy. Sassafras was also an ingredient in treating the wounds caused by magical projectiles known as ga:dhidv, which are the supernatural missiles of conjurers. It is interesting to draw parallels between the medicinal uses of sassafras root as a cleanser of blood and its Cherokee uses as a cleanser of energy or spiritual contamination. Sassafras has many more ethnobotanical uses, and it is interesting to modern folk magic practitioners to note the correlations between its ability to ward off illness and pestilence as well as attract prosperity both in its medical and magical uses.
The issues of safrole, the possibly carcinogenic chemical which lurks within the roots of the Sassafras is a tricky question. Undoubtedly it exists, but whether it is harmful when used as an occasional, traditionally prepared tea is the question. Check out my friend Kate's thesis on safrole if you want to get really nerdy with it, but as with most things, do your own research and see what you think. I drink it. I'm not worried.
If you'd like to get the whole story folk magical story on Sassafras and other important native Appalachian roots, check out my piece, as well as the other fabulous works in the Third Volume of Verdant Gnosis.
What can I make with it?
Tea, syrup and confections! Boil those roots to get a deep red, lovely tea. You can also use the leaves dried and powdered like file gumbo powder to thicken soups and stews. I like to boil the roots, combine with honey and add bubbly water for a "root beer".
Wood: furniture, interior and exterior joinery, windows, doors and door frames , kitchen cabinets and paneling, boat building, canoe paddles, gates, barn doors, wagon beds and fence posts. Sassafras is very resistant to heartwood decay, but in exposed damp conditions the sapwood is vulnerable to powder post beetle. Oh, and probably a fine spoon.
Use the chips of root bark for protective magics or craft a bed, gate, or object to be free from the influence of malevolent spirits. Burn the wood chips as a bioregional incense to rid a place of negative influence, spirits/ persons.
I like to make a "blasting rod" type wand from this wood to free places, people and objects from the sway of these spirits as well. It's twisty nature really lends it to this purpose.
(1) Austin, Daniel F., and P. Narodny. Honychurch. Florida Ethnobotany: Fairchild Tropical Garden, Coral Gables, Florida Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona: With More than 500 Species Illustrated by Penelope N. Honychurch. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2004.
Kilpatrick, Alan. The Night Has a Naked Soul. Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee. (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997).
Rupp, Rebecca. Red Oaks & Black Birches: The Science and Lore of Trees. Pownal, VT: Storey Communications, 1990.
Tantaquidgeon, Gladys. "Mohegan Medical Practices, Weather-lore and Superstitions." Smithsonian Institution- Bureau of Ethnology Annual Report 44 (1928): 264-70.
Thomas, Daniel Lindsey, and Lucy Blayney Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1920. #2993.
UCLA Folklore Archives 1_6728.
White and Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the Folklore of North Carolina, Collected by Dr. Frank C. Brown during the Years 1912 to 1943, in Collaboration with the North Carolina Folklore Society.
White, Newman Ivey, and Frank Clyde Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the Folklore of North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press [1952-64], 1952.
Willard, Fred L., Victor G. Aeby, and Tracy Carpenter-Aeby. "Sassafras in the New World and the Syphilis Exchange." Journal Of Instructional Psychology 41, no. 1-4 (March 2014): 3-9.
Vance, Randolph. Ozark Magic and Folklore. (New York, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 1964, c1947).
Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure. Lucky Mojo Curio Company: Root Doctor, 2002.
Oh my gosh. I got interviewed on Rune Soup. Fan girl moment!
Check it out!
“A witch is, actually, a successful (in the sense of surviving) deviant. You have a cultural, ideological, social, what-not pattern which is, for that society in question, normal (and, importantly, this is understood as a synonym for natural). Most people survive because they conform to these patterns, because they behave normally. […] But then suddenly you get a deviant which survives, and since it does not draw its support from the normal pattern, […] that deviant is understood as drawing its support from “unknown”, “supernatural” sources. […] If we cannot survive without our order, how can she [the witch] survive in solitude? Hers must be indeed a very powerful order to exist so independently, without all the inter cooperation and individual compromise which we have to go through to survive. And if it is so powerful, then it could destroy us. We must try to destroy it first.”
Maya Deren, “From the Notebook of Maya Deren”, 1947, October, vol. 14 (Autumn 1980): 21–45.
The first time I head the term The Poisoner, was while listening to modern horror fiction in 2010. It was a story by Holly Day, on the podcast, Pseudopod, one of my favorites to listen to while I carve or paint. I was struck by this story. A tale of a woman who knows which plants kill and which plants can cure, but she has a mad lust for the killing variety, and for witnessing death. She is the witch in the wood, the senseless murderer, the ungodly follower of evil for the sake of evil. She is a deviant. She is the Poisoner.
Recently, as is no news to anyone, there has been an intense amount of challenge and struggle. There is a deep fear building up, like the poison from the narcissus bulbs thrown in the well by the Poisoner. Fear, both real and imagined, permeates our social media, or newspapers and our daily conversations. It is horrifying, exhausting and stressful. It means life or death to some, and brings on mental health struggles in others. It has shown us where deep rifts were covered by thin carpet, barely allowing us to cross, and where in each of us there lies poisoned wells.
Many have written pieces on self care during these times, and these come deeply appreciated. People write of bane work, hexing and cursing with new fervor, further causing rifts and divides as some camp on the side of "do no harm! You go too far!" And some holler back from the other side, "we're fighting for our lives! You cannot understand, you cannot see us."
I'm not saying anything new here, anything original, I'm just so impressed. Impressed at how many powerful, wonderous people there are in our communities locally and at large. And I want to make an offering. I want to give you the power of the Poisoner. The reason she exists is because of the fear. The fear of the "other". She exists because what is medicine is also poison in large doses. They say that hexing is the tool of the oppressed. So then let's hex, let's introduce ourselves to the poison plants, and understand them. Like knowing the darkest parts of ourselves, let us know all the uses and magic of the plants, including the dark ones. Knowledge is a type of power after all.
It does not mean that we are violent when we learn self defense. It doesn't mean we are sluts when we learn which herbs bring on the blood. It doesn't mean we are Poisoners when we learn the poison plants. It means we know. It means we're not defenseless. It means that we are empowered. It means that there are great threats that exist. To our health, happiness, and to some, our very lives. We are becoming wiser. This is my offering.
I'll be teaching "The Poison Plants" at Raven and Crone this Sunday. If you're local to the Asheville area, I hope I see you there. If you can't I'll make the PDF of the booklet I wrote available for donation in my store.
Many have made lists and posts of things we can do to care for ourselves and others, radical acts of self care and community support, personal work and rising to try and be real, grounded, humble allies to our friends who are queer, POC, differently abled and/or in danger under this new administration. The ones of us who have been studying plants and ALL of their uses are needed now. We've always been needed, but now there is a pressing feeling that we have work to do. Those of us who can do it. Now is the time.
<<some important things (but obvi not all)>>
Herbs for Resistance by Janet Kent
Self Care: Wort Cunning
This great piece by the amazing Rae about Relentless Self Love
Sarah Anne Lawless's, "Awakening from the Dream to the Nightmare of Reality."
Self Care under Capitalism
This excellent list: The Witches Resistance Action List
Poison Path Resource Guide
Very good piece about the ethics of hexing <<TW for almost everything>>
The Curse Collection of Sarah Anne Lawless <<TW for sexual violence>>
Why Walk the Poison Path
Getting our Shit Together so we can actually try and be good allies
White Awake: resources for white folks to face and combat white supremacy
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit an old friend of mine, and a great mentor, Jeff Gottlieb. He has been working on his amazing tiny homestead for the past 5 years, and I, being a terrible friend, haven't visited yet. We got to check out all the amazing things he's been working on, nerd out about net making and spoon carving, and oh so many other things.
Jeff has been an educator for along time. He's an accomplished naturalist, a wigwam builder, a spoon carver, and a historic artifact reproduction extraordinaire. We met through the Earth skills Rendezvous about 7 years ago. Since then, his contagious smile, matter-of-fact teaching style and silly pun-filled sense of humor have made him indispensable.
Jeff has been working on many things, but his Kudzy Kabin is perhaps his claim to fame. This adorable little house is not make of strawbale, its Kudzu bale. Imagine a home made from a plant so detested and deemed useless, invasive and otherwise hated. He has made the second one known in the US, though let me know if you've made one and I'm not aware.
Still under construction, but it is so cute! The miraculous thing is, some of this clay was made with elephant dung. Can you spot the elephant head on the right side wall?
Here, take a closer look. You can see the lovely red, Carolina clay and tulip poplar bark siding about the soon to be door.
The inside is even sweeter.
He told me about the stained glass window he and his mother made and we laughed about the problems of carving spoons inside. We are both guilty of making wood chips where ever we go.
His lovely greenhouse he shares with a neighbor.
Comfrey and day lillies.
Wild food grows everywhere.
He has the sweetest mini-orchard full of plums, cherries, asian pears and much more.
Tool Envy is a thing. And I have it.
Making dogbane cordage for net making. Jeff has woven huge dogbane nets as replicas for museums. Making replicas of historical, and pre-historical in some cases, objects is a source of fun and livelihood for him. I also teach net making now and I learned 7 years ago how to make cordage from Jeff. The passing and dissemination of these skills among and beyond our community is part of the reason I love it so much.
The dogbane plant was a major source of fiber for First Nations people in our bioregion. It is my favorite of the fiber plants here in Appalachia. Notice all the little fibers waiting to be stripped out.
Knapped blue glass arrow heads.
We finished our visit by digging ground nuts (Apios americana). This is a delicious tuber of substantial caloric content: a rarity among our non-nut wild foods. Cook and eat like potatoes! We dug up lots of them with ease in the moist soil along the edge of Jeff's garden. "Apios!" He cried as he pulled them from the Earth. We laughed and he filled a black plastic planting pot with them for me and I headed on home. A lovely day with a dear multitalented friend. I love when wild foods, primitive skills, friends and magical homesteads all blend into a super sweet day.
We only have only been in the New Year, according to the Gregorians, for a little while. Now we can bid farewell to 2016. And what a year it has been. I have heard on almost every front, that this year has been the hardest, most difficult year most can remember. It has been for me as well. Though I have not suffered nearly the pain of those in Gatlinburg, Standing Rock, Syria, and the list goes on and on. There is much suffering in the world right now. And I open my arms to you.
I will not be silenced by pain. I will not stop foraging, doing magic and listening. And so, we go on. I'd like to forge ahead and wrap up our Folkloric Uses of Wood series, for we've only two more to go, and much more to explore and gather. Our next magical tree will be Basswood.
Witching and Bitching in Western NC.
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