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Nature Notebook – Root Beer and Sassafras Trees

“Mmmm, smells like root beer!” is the reaction from anyone smelling the root of a sassafras tree. Many of our students refer to this tree as the Fruit Loops tree because of the sweet scent of exposed sapwood on a twig.

Sassafras trees are loaded with volatile oils which produce the unique odors. The oils evaporate quickly when exposed to air, hence the term “volatile.” Native Americans learned to trap the oils in water to create infusions that were used to treat a wide variety of ailments including coughs, diarrhea, eyesores, fevers and rheumatism.

They also discovered that cooking the roots in water made a delicious tea. Colonists learned to incorporate the mixture into the production of their “small beers.” These drinks, with a low alcohol content (so…small), were made with different barks and roots. After settling in North American, they could also use sassafras.

George Hires is credited with being the first in 1876 to name and market the concoction made from these roots but, Native Americans and the early settlers had been enjoying the sassafras treat long before then.