There’s nothing better than a freshly brewed cup of sassafras tea. The reddish-brown bark hints at the tea’s color, and its crisp flavor is often compared to root beer. Southern Indiana not only has an abundance of sassafras trees but is also home to the only sassafras tea festival in the U.S. And since the tea is made from roots harvested in late winter, spring is the perfect time to sample this Southern Indiana tradition.
Sassafras trees are easy to identify because they have three different-shaped leaves: oval, mitten-shaped and three-lobed. Native Americans and early European settlers used sassafras to flavor their food and treat everything from stomachaches to bronchitis. While the Surgeon General issued a warning about sassafras oil in 1965, sassafras teas and candies are still widely available and aren’t regulated by the FDA.
The Sassafras Tea and Civil War Living History Festival is held during the fourth weekend of April in Vernon and attracts about 5,000 visitors annually. Chris Asher has been the festival chair since 1992. “The festival started as a small get-together where folks had a chance to visit and share stories,” Asher says. “But it quickly grew to become a tradition.”
Sassafras roots are dug up during February and early March before the sap begins to run. After the roots are cleaned and sliced into 1-inch-thick pieces, they are laid out to dry. Anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 cups of tea are served during the festival at the Jennings County Historical Society.
“My husband makes the tea,” Asher says. “We make it in a huge brass kettle that has been used since 1961.” And the kettle isn’t the only aspect of the original festival that’s still around. Asher says the tea is prepared exactly the same, and she recommends this classic recipe.
SASSAFRAS TEA FESTIVAL RECIPE
2 quarts of water
2 oz. of washed sassafras roots
Use a stainless steel or glass pan. Combine water and sassafras roots. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for about ½ hour. Serve plain or with brown sugar.