Sunday, November 9, 2008

fountain of youth?


Say the word in a whisper. It flows like a gentle breeze off the tongue.

It's a great moniker and a curious plant, one with a unique claim to fame.

The early English colonists in North America along the Atlantic coastline were eager to find gold and silver as the Spanish had done in South America. They found neither. They did find lots and lots of trees. Looking for something of value, the Elizabethans learned that the Native Americans drank sassafras tea as something of a “cure all.” (In the age before wonder drugs, everyone was desperate to find one.)

Hoping to make a little money, Sir Walter Raleigh took sassafras back to England from Virginia. The miracle elixir made from its roots became all the rage, spawning the “Great Sassafras Hunts.” Ships were dispatched from England in the early 1600s to collect the medicinal roots and bark that were brewed into the tonic. Billed as a proverbial Fountain of Youth, the golden brown tea smelled like root beer and supposedly kept its drinkers ageless and full of health. Sassafras teahouses became as fashionable in England as Starbucks are in Manhattan today.

The craze ended when drinkers realized they were indeed still aging, and perhaps not the picture of health they had hoped to be. As TV journalist Linda Ellerbee was prone to say, “And so it goes.”

This past week, on a neighborhood walk, I encountered a sassafras tree beginning to molt into its fall color. I left its roots intact and took only a photo, which in itself, will never age.


Vickie said...

That photo looks like a painting. I did a double-take. Lovely. Have you ever tried sassafras tea?

Stephen Lyn Bales said...

Hello Vickie. Yes, I have. Rooty tasting, like warm root beer. You can buy it in most grocery stores along side the orange pekoe and Earl Grey.

But, as you see from my photo, I'm still turning gray. Perhaps, I should wash my hair in it.

The Tile Lady said...

Aren't the sassafras plants gorgeous this time of year! Mom discovered one in full fall color growing beside her driveway and photographed it for her blog (Life in Wakefield). I have had sassafras as a hot tea all my life, and was shocked to recently learn that not only is it not a elixir of youth (as the Colonials apparently discovered) it also contains an element that is toxic. The only drinkable sassafras you can find now has had the element removed...otherwise it is now illegal to sell it for consumption! But, as for finding it in the wild (which I would no longer do, now that I am older and wiser and plan to become a Master Naturalist), you are still consuming that toxicity along with it's wonderful taste! How the generations of Indians, Colonials and then Americans kept from poisoning themselves with it when it was "all the rage" quite baffles me!!!! But then, maybe they did....

Stephen Lyn Bales said...


Maybe they did indeed.

Of course, most of those Indians and colonials: Elizabethans and otherwise didn't live very long.

They really needed a Fountain of Youth.Just the trip across the ocean did a lot of them in.

Many thanks for reading.