So here are a few visuals of the northeastern lovelies you will need to find either in the woods if you are lucky enough for that (!) or at you local herb supplier store. Sassafras has been getting a bad rap from the USDA for years. They say that the active component of sassafras, safrole, is a “known carcinogen.” Why? Well, the scientists gave quantities of pure safrole (that do not exist in nature in such quantities) to rats and the rats got cancer. Later researchers noted that safrole seems to cause cancer in rats, but not people. Many people still think that sipping sassafras tea will ensure you end up with an oncologist. Just know that there are many times more known carcinogens in a bottle of beer than there are in any homemade sassafras-based root beer product you might make. It has been calculated that you would need to drink at least 24 gallons of sassafras root beer a day for an extended time to get the amount of safrole fed to those rats. Close to impossible.
With the shift in seasons comes that deep inner knowing in your body that it too, must shift to prepare for change. This can be more drastic for some depending on where you live. The truth is, we all need a little help and looking to your local plants is the best place to start. Here in the northeastern US, we have such a massive variety of options second only to tropical regions. I bring in a few tropical plants for flavor but rely on our trees mostly for the traditional rooty-earthy flavor and tonifying effects. Remember days are shortening, nights are lengthening and our need to keep warm, quiet down, slow down, sleep more, and go within is increasing. Even our blood draws deeper into the body as surface capillary beds contract to conserve heat. Resisting the natural cycle of things will make you feel out of sorts. Some herbalists will not use their home heat here in NY until after mid-November as a way to honor and encourage this process of shifting that is happening at the cellular level.
Harvest the leaves of Wintergreen. If you are not sure if it's the right plant, use your nose! Break a leaf and inhale. It smells like....wintergreen!
Shave the Birch bark so you have that inner green fragrant inner bark layer. That's the alive part of the tree! Smell it too - it smells like.... Birch.
If you are lucky enough or skilled enough to find Black Birch, just shave the bark off of the small branches you harvested with your excellent pocket knife you carry for just such occasions. Yes, normally we harvest in the spring for this bark. But I need a little now to finish my syrup just right so I snipped some lower small twigs with much gratitude and wandered home to start working on the bark whittling. Never substitute mints for the birch/wintergreen component. Yuck is all I can say as the mints do not hold their taste with the long simmering. Go the length and get the traditional ingredients, especially for your first time through.
Please read through before starting so you get the idea first. Remember you are medicine making.. This is a divine art as well as a science. Multi-tasking makes room for error. Stay focused, put on some music you love, and a little dancing and singing in the kitchen always makes things come out better. Give all of you to this process. My grandmother agreed that it is how you stir, not just what you use!
Root Beer Syrup - Ingredients
6 cups cold water
4 oz Sassafras root dried (double if you have fresh)
2 oz Sarsaparilla root dried (double if you have fresh)
1oz Burdock root dried (double if you have fresh)
2 Tlb minced fresh ginger root (highly sprayed so find it unsprayed!)
Black Birch Bark shavings - 1 handful; OR 4-6 fresh Wintergreen leaves; OR Wintergreen Extract 1/8-1/4 tsp
2-3 whole cloves
1 tsp Coriander Seed
1/4 cup Molasses
1/4 Maple Syrup -(Real .... from the Maple Tree please; high minerals and goodness!)
Organic Sugar or Maple Syrup to equal your amount of strained final decoction.
Place all herbs EXCEPT Black Birch Bark or Wintergreen, into a pot and pour cold water over and bring to a simmer.
Simmer covered loosely for 20-25 minutes.
Add Molasses, stir, replace lid, simmer another 5 minutes
Let sit until cool or overnight. This allows all the nutritive mineral to move into your brew.
Strain through cheese cloth or fine mesh fabric.
Congratulations!! This is your root decoction! Taste it. It should be good like this so add a little to some warm water and sip.
Now we will work on giving it a shelf life. Place your measured root decoction in a pot and use a chop stick to measure the level up the chopstick. Bring to a gentle simmer and reduce by 1/3 to 1/2 - this concentrates the flavor and helps preserve. Use the measure on the chopstick to estimate the level as it goes down. Remove from heat and NOW add Birch Bark or Wintergreen and recover for 10 minutes. Now strain and measure this amount in a measuring cup and return to the pot and add an equal amount of organic sugar or maple syrup and warm to mix. So if you have 3 cups, use 3 cups sweetener. Yes, it sounds like too much but it preserves it and tastes good. Chemistry is chemistry. Mess with it and you will have a jar of mold. Remember, you take 1 Tlb at a time when done because you concentrated it.
Now.... Taste it! See below for ideas on how to use.
Pour in clean labeled jars and keep in the refrigerator (up to 6 months). Some process in mason jars and store in the dark until needed.
1tsp-1 Tlb over ice with seltzer and sip.
1tsp-1 TLB stirred into warm water and sipped.
A therapeutic seasonal autumn tonic dose is 2-3 Tlb/ day diluted as mentioned and drink throughout your day. Use each day until your batch is gone. It is absolutely delicious with a fresh squeeze of lime.
Jennifer Costa, Herbalist, Teacher, BS, RN, CST, and Founder of ElderMoon School of Herbs & Earth Medicine