DISCLAIMER: Don't believe anything I or any body else tells you about edible wild plants. Don't eat edible wild plants based on what you see in a book or on the inter-net. Get a qualified instructor to show you the plants, and don't eat them until the instructor shows you how to prepare them, and then eats them him or herself. Be aware that you may be allergic to a plant that someone else can eat without harm. Be sure that any plants that you gather have not been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides.
In the "old days" it was common practice for pioneer families to imbibe a spring tonic. This ritual was part medicinal and part psychological. It was medicinal in that the tonic in question usually had some medicinal benefit, either real or imagined; and it was psychological in that it was an acknowledgment that the natural world was renewing itself and man, by the act of taking this purifying herb, was to be part of this renewal. In the South, one of the most common spring tonics was Sassafras tea.
The Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a fairly small tree, sometimes up to 40' tall, which grows throughout the Eastern United States. The easiest way to identify the Sassafras is by its leaves. You will find that the Sassafras has three distinctly different shaped leaves on the same tree. Some of the leaves are oval shaped, some of the leaves are mitten shaped, and some of the leaves are three lobed. All of the leaves have smooth edges, and are shiny on the upper surface. Pictured below: The three different shaped leaves found on the sassafras tree
If you have any doubts about whether you have correctly identified a Sassafras, all you have to do is dig up a small root and smell of it. Sassafras root smells exactly like rootbeer.
To make Sassafras tea, dig up several small roots and wash the dirt from them. Bring a pot of water to a boil and throw the roots into the boiling water. Let the roots boil for a few minutes until the water begins to turn a deep red. Remove water from heat and let the tea steep. Serve hot or cold. Add honey or sugar if you like. Native Americans added maple sugar.
Old timers referred to Sassafras tea as a blood thinner. They said that it helped a person tolerate the coming summer heat better. Modern science tells us that Sassafras contains a mild narcoleptic, a drug that induces drowsiness. The Food and Drug Administration also warns us that Sassafras can cause cancer if given in large doses to laboratory rats over extended periods of time (so don't give your pet rat a washtub full of Sassafras tea every day).
Apparently mosquitoes do not like the smell of Sassafras. Take some of the tea and rub it on exposed areas of your skin to repel these pesky little critters.
Yet another use of Sassafras is as a thickener in stews. You may remember the Hank Williams song about "Jambalya, crawfish pie, and filet gumbo." Well, filet is the substance used to thicken gumbo, and filet is made from dried and powdered Sassafras leaves. If you make your own filet be careful to remove the sharp stems and veins after the leaves have been crushed. These can cause major stomach problems. Also, be sure and don't give your pet rat too much gumbo.
I have read that Sassafras can be used to make a fire-bow-drill, but I have had no success with this. The wood seems to be too hard. I have intended to try and dig up a large Sassafras root, let it dry for six months and see if that wouldn't make a usable fire-bow-drill. The root of the Cottonwood is the only part of that tree that I have ever been able to start a fire-bow fire with, and I was thinking that the same may hold true for the Sassafras, but I haven't got around to trying it yet. Maybe you'll try it first and let me know.