Podcast 216: Herbs A-Z: Sambucus & Sassafras

We’re continuing our “herbs on our shelf” series from A to Z today! This time our herbs are elder and sassafras.

The most famous part of elder (Sambucus nigra) is the berry, which is indeed an helpful herb in fighting viral infections including colds, flu, and even COVID. It’s a rather safe one, despite occasional herban legends do the contrary. (No, the berries will not kill you with cyanide. No, elderberry does not cause cytokine storms. No, it is not a risk for people with autoimmunity.) But it’s so much more than that! We can break elder berry out of the ‘cold & flu’ box, and appreciate it as an anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular tonic, and traditional alterative. Plus, we can also work with the flowers! They make an excellent relaxant diaphoretic, for releasing both physical and emotional heat.

As for sassafras (Sassafras albidum), its root bark is its most famous part, and it’s a key component of ‘root beer’ flavors. We like it that way, with sarsaparilla (whether that’s Smilax, Hemidesmus, or Aralia), ginger, & birch – and why not add some adaptogens too? That’s how you get Rooted & Ready. But wait! Sassafras leaf is also quite nice. It’s one of those interesting herbs which combines demulcent and astringent qualities all in the same herb, like purple loosestrife, and it’s one of Katja’s preferred herbs to correct for too much dryness in a formula.

Elder and Sassafras both turn up in our course Elements of Detoxification. This course takes a fresh look at the concepts of “toxicity” and “detoxification”, a holistic perspective that goes beyond “cleanses” and products. Learn a memorable, practical model for understanding how the body’s detox functions work, along with the roles herbs can play in supporting them. And, take a look at some key formulas like Rooted & Ready, that bring together taste, action, and energetics for maximum effect. Check it out!

Like all our offerings, these are self-paced online video courses, which come with free access to twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, twice-weekly live Q&A sessions with us, open discussion threads integrated in each lesson, an active student community, study guides, quizzes & capstone assignments, and more!

Elements of

If you enjoyed the episode, it helps us a lot if you subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen. This helps others find us more easily. Thank you!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:13):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:16):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:18):
And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast.

Katja (00:21):

Ryn (00:22):
Intermittent as it may be. And it is still powerful.

Katja (00:27):
It is, it is. You know what? There are so many episodes, that when we get really busy and don’t make a punctual episode, then that’s okay. Because people can listen to old episodes. They’re still good. They’re still good, even if they’re old. And actually…

Ryn (00:47):
Like many things, yeah.

Katja (00:49):
Yeah. It has been really busy. So, we moved here late last fall, and that means all new gardens. And there were never gardens here before. So, it has just been lots of work getting things in. But it’s paying off, because the St. John’s wort started blooming yesterday. The first little bloom. And then today there is like a sea of St. John’s wort flowers out there. I’m very excited about it.

Ryn (01:22):
Yeah. It’s pretty great. Well, today we’re going to be talking to you about Sambucus and Sassafras. Sassafras is sassafras.

Katja (01:34):
Yeah. That’s a Latin name that’s easy to learn.

Ryn (01:35):
Yep. Sambucus is elder. And it’s not just berry. Because sometimes you see elderberry, elderberry. But there’s elderflower. There are other elder bits as well. But yeah, elder. So, we’ll talk about that. But before we jump in, we want to remind you that our podcast is in fact just a small part of what we do. First and foremost, we are teacher herbalists. You can learn from us. You can learn herbalism online. Our courses are centered on video lessons, just as if you were right here in class with us. Every lesson in every course that we teach has an integrated discussion thread right there built into it, so you can ask your questions and get answers as you go along, as you learn. Courses have MP3s of all the material, so you can download the audio and listen as you go.

Katja (02:26):
Right. So, if you like to watch and learn, or if you like to listen and learn, both work. There are audio versions of every video.

Ryn (02:35):
Your course access with us never expires. So, you can take as much time as you need. And you can review the material as often as you like.

Katja (02:42):
And we update the material pretty regularly. In fact, today I’m editing a video about chronic venous insufficiency for the cardiovascular course. And I’m going to put that in the course. And everybody enrolled in the course is going to get that new video. They don’t have to do anything special. It just automatically, automagically appears in their student dashboard. So, any time that you enroll in a course, whenever we say ooh, here’s something we should add to the course. You get that for free automagically.

Ryn (03:12):
Yeah. And we know a lot of people are worried about learning online, and feeling like they won’t have community connection or other people to bounce ideas off, or that they’ll be kind of all alone with a book, you know, in a monastery somewhere.

Katja (03:24):
Or their couch.

Ryn (03:25):
Or laptop, you know, yeah. But we try to get around that, right? We try to find ways to keep community and keep direct connection with our students. So, you get to talk to us directly. We have a live Q&A session twice a week if not more every week.

Katja (03:39):
Yeah. Twice a week for the general student body. Every other week for international students. Then we also have special sessions for the more advanced students in the clinical program. There’s a lot of live in-person interaction. Mm-hmm. And there’s also our online community. We have a private – not on Facebook, like private on our own website – community where you can chat with other students. You can swap herbs. You can just talk about what you’re up to. You can find accountability buddies. You can say hey, is anybody else struggling with this concept? Does anybody want to talk about it? Whatever is going on for you, you can chat about it there.

Ryn (04:18):
Yeah. So, if you ever find yourself being like I’m going to check Facebook for some herbal group discussions. And then you find yourself looking at comic book movie memes for 30 minutes, not that that happened to me yesterday. But if that ever happens to you, then our community is way better than Facebook in that regard.

Katja (04:35):
Way better than Facebook, yeah. Guaranteed herbal goodness every time.

Ryn (04:40):
Yeah. So, you can find all of that and more with all of our courses and all of our programs, including free courses by the way. You can find all of this at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Katja (04:51):

Ryn (04:52):
Okay. All right. And because we’re going to talk about some health stuff ideas today and some herbal stuff, we want to remind you first that we’re not doctors. We’re herbalists. I think you probably knew that. We’re holistic health educators.

Katja (05:04):
The ideas that we’ll discuss in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalist in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (05:17):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, keep in mind that we’re not attempting to present a single dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (05:34):
Everyone’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some new information to think about and some ideas to research and experiment with further.

Ryn (05:46):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey, and it doesn’t mean you’re to blame for your current state of health. But it does mean that the final decision when you’re considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, that’s always your choice to make.

Katja (06:05):

Elder: Raw Berries & Weird Flavors

Ryn (06:06):
Okay. So, let’s start out today talking about elder.

Katja (06:11):
Oh, elder. How much I love you. Listen, okay. So, I almost don’t even want to talk about elderberries.

Ryn (06:20):
Yeah. There’s a kind of saturation, you know? There’s a bajillion – I think is the technical number – of blog posts, and articles, and podcast episodes, and like all kinds of other things about elderberry. And fight cold and flu, combat those viruses, boost up the immunity, yeah. And none of that’s wrong.

Katja (06:44):
No. It’s all accurate and good and right.

Ryn (06:46):
Elderberry is amazing stuff, you know? It’s really good. It’s really reliable. It’s also, I think it’s worth pointing out, very safe.

Katja (06:53):
Oh boy. All right. So, we have a little mini course on elderberries and elderflowers. It’s like a little $10 mini course. But it has some really great stuff in it. And one of the things that’s in it is like this ginormous explainer, because so many people have heard the myth that elder berries are toxic if you don’t cook them first. And that is just plain not true. Now we are talking about black elderberries, Sambucus nigra. There are some red elderberries species, and I don’t work with those. And I would not eat those raw either, though I have seen foraging books that say you can do it.

Ryn (07:39):
Yep. We’ve got some students who’ve reported back. Yeah, I had a handful today, and I’m still here. I didn’t even throw up. You know, that kind of thing.

Katja (07:45):
Yep. But they don’t grow around here. So, I think that the reason that I would not do that is more because I’m not familiar with that plant. Whereas I am very familiar with black elderberry.

Ryn (07:56):
And I mean, that’s a good point too. It is better to not start grabbing berries at random and chewing on them. You want to know the plant. You want to have done a little research first. You want to compare notes with other people. Yeah, okay.

Katja (08:08):
But in the U.S., elderberries are never really a thing that were available in the grocery store. And although they do grow wild, they’re just not common in our culture. But if you go on recipe websites that are based in the UK, there’s granola and elderberry with yogurt recipes. I don’t know why you need a recipe for granola with yogurt and fruit, but they have them.

Ryn (08:37):
It’s all about the ratios.

Katja (08:38):
And the recipe just calls for fresh, raw elderberries, as if they were blueberries or any other kind of berries. So, you know, I mean, go ahead. Eat an entire bag of cherries. It’s cherry season right now, so cherries are on my mind. Eat an entire bag of cherries. And yes, it will make your poop a little different if you eat the whole bag in one sitting. It’s true. And if you eat a whole bunch of elderberries all in one sitting, yes. It will loosen things up a little bit. That’s the dainty technical – I don’t know what – term.

Ryn (09:17):
You’re going to have diarrhea, folks.

Katja (09:19):
No, it won’t be all the way to diarrhea. It’ll just be like soft serve, you know?

Ryn (09:24):
Fun. And look, there are some folks who are more susceptible, can get nausea from eating that. Okay. Smaller humans – okay – if they eat a whole pile of black elderberries, maybe they’ll get some nausea. Maybe they’ll even vomit.

Katja (09:37):
The same is true if you eat an entire pineapple.

Ryn (09:41):
Yeah. But people get the idea with elderberry that it’s comparable to something like say bittersweet nightshade berry. Where yeah, if you eat a whole pile of those, you are quite likely to vomit. If a kid eats them, they can get pretty seriously sick. So, people have that idea about elderberry as well, that it’s really dangerous.

Katja (10:00):
And it’s just not. It’s more like if you eat an entire watermelon, it does make you have woogie belly. But nobody thinks that that’s because watermelon is poisonous. They think that’s because they just ate an entire watermelon. And that’s because you buy watermelon at the grocery store, and you don’t buy elder berry at the grocery store. So, if you eat a ton of raw elderberries, and you have that same experience. You don’t think well, that’s because I just ate a whole watermelon, you know? Just because that’s not our relationship with this particular berry in this country.

Ryn (10:29):
Yeah. So, it can be a food. And then of course it can be a medicine. We can be making decoctions. We can be making syrups. A lot of people prefer that, because honestly, elderberry decoction, I mean…

Katja (10:40):
It’s kind of weird.

Ryn (10:41):
It’s kind of weird. It’s not like you imagine if you took a bunch of blueberries and cook them for a while.

Katja (10:48):
It does not taste like blueberry juice. No. It doesn’t taste like raspberry juice.

Ryn (10:52):
And there’s a smell, you know. And some people feel like that’s a little urine-y kind of a smell to it.

Katja (10:57):
Or dirt a little bit. It tastes like blueberries and dirt together. There’s just some kind of weirdness about it. They’re fine when you eat them. They’re fine when you make them into syrup. But that weird thing about making them into tea…

Ryn (11:12):
Yeah. I mean, and with syrup, you know, you have honey. And then you often add some spices too: cinnamon, and ginger, and allspice, and cardamon, and a touch of clove, and all of that. And if you do want to make an elderberry decoction, go for it. But my advice is put some spices in there, you know? Mix up a bunch of powerful flavors, aromatics, and pungents, and things like that.

Katja (11:32):
Like chai spice. That’s enough.

Ryn (11:34):
Yeah. Put that together with them.

Katja (11:35):
Even just elderberry and cardamom, it would be enough.

Other Safety Concers About Elder

Ryn (11:39):
Yeah. And then, you know, it’s funny. Because there was this other sort of like safety question around elderberry, especially early on in Covid when there was a big spike in elderberry product sales. And people were buying those things and being super hyped about elderberry as an antiviral. And there was this warning going around about elderberry causing cytokine storm, which briefly is just like an excessively inflammatory immune response. As if the fiery part of your immune response has gotten really out of control. And there’s nobody around to corral that, or point that in a productive direction, or say okay, you’ve done the job. You can put the fire away now.

Katja (12:21):
Calm down now. Yeah.

Ryn (12:22):
Yeah. So, cytokine storm is real, but it’s generally happening to people who are severely sick, usually hospitalized, in a modern context. It’s not something that’s going to happen to you spontaneously on your third day of feeling kind of crappy and taking some elderberry syrup.

Katja (12:38):
Yeah, no. And I mean okay. Especially at the beginning of covid, people were that sick. They were in the hospital. But those people didn’t have elderberry. They were in the hospital, and they were on ventilators. So, they were definitely the kind of people who were candidates for a cytokine storm, but the two factors didn’t come together.

Ryn (13:01):
Yeah. Elderberry is innocent in this regard. And honestly, that was a situation where much was made of some micro-scale, scientific study looking at the effects of elderberry to increase the activity of certain inflammatory cytokines. But looking at that evidence in a vacuum and not noticing the other papers right next to it that said elderberry also increased the activity of anti-inflammatory cytokines in the body.

Katja (13:27):
It increases stuff in balance.

Ryn (13:29):
Yeah. It is a nicely balanced herb. And I mean, connected to that, we’ve also. Okay, I’ve heard one or two reports. But I have never encountered directly any cases of somebody with say, an autoimmune disorder taking elderberry and getting a flare up, right? Which is a concern with some immune stimulants. It doesn’t happen every time, even with every one of them. Even with echinacea, which we are careful about in cases.

Katja (13:54):
Yeah, you do see that with echinacea. Not across the board, but frequently enough that it’s worth remembering.

Ryn (14:02):
Yeah. We pay attention with that one. But if somebody comes in and says hey, I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis. It’s mostly controlled through diet and movement and other things. I want to take some something to boost up my immunity, because I’m about to get on a plane. Do you think elder is safe for me? I would say go for it. I’m not worried about that.

Katja (14:20):
I mean, I think if somebody with rheumatoid arthritis. Or I’m even thinking in my case of MS or any other autoimmune thing. If they were not feeling awesome, and they were like I think I’m getting a cold. I think I’d like to take some elderberry. Does that feel safe? That feels safe to me. If you wouldn’t be afraid of blueberries… You wouldn’t think oh, I shouldn’t eat these blueberries because it might cause some kind of autoimmune flare up. Then elder is also 99% of the time not going to be a concern.

Ryn (14:58):
Yeah. So, you know, in all these ways it’s an example of a plant that is wildly popular and heavily commercialized. And also that’s fine. Because again, it’s safe. It largely accomplishes what people are trying to do with it even in the doses that are recommended on these products and everything. So, that’s all to the good. There is one small area to attend to though with this. And this is really a general idea around buying supplements and herbal products. Make sure that it’s a good quality brand, make sure that you have some idea of how long they’ve been in business and what they’re up to. It’s not to say that you don’t buy some local elderberry syrup from a small-scale producer, but you do want to know who it is. You don’t want to grab the cheapest one off of Amazon. There have been some reports. And the botanical adulterants prevention program recently had a bulletin around adulterated elderberry products. They took a bunch of purple pigments from some other cheaper plant, and squirted that into their syrup juice thing, and they sold that to people.

Katja (16:00):
Like purple corn syrup, you know? Yeah. And listen, I mean, whenever something becomes a moneymaker, that is something that you do need to be concerned about. It’s not just elderberry. There are lots of products out there that are found to be adulterated regularly. So, the adulterated project is shepherded by the American Botanical Council, if I remember correctly.

Ryn (16:28):
I think it’s like a collaboration between ABC and also AHPA.

Katja (16:31):
Yeah, I was going to say shepherded by ABC and supported by AHPA, which is the American Herbal Products Association.

Ryn (16:42):
That’s the one. Yeah. So, that’s good. You know, I mean, they are industry groups, but it’s a collaboration. And you know, the goal is let’s not have a bunch of poorly made, bad quality, potentially problematic or even dangerous supplements running around out there. And look, these folks do have a profit motive for that, right? If there are crappy products, if the whole range of supplements in general is more and more regarded as snake oil, or falsity, or whatever, that’s going to be bad for the bottom line.

Katja (17:13):
For the whole industry, yeah.

Ryn (17:14):
So, I like to point that out, because I’m not in the habit of making apologies for corporations or whatever, or groups of them working together. But occasionally, you know, their interests align with the rest of ours, and that’s nice.

Getting Elder Out of the Cold & Flu Box

Katja (17:28):
Yeah. And as lobbies go, AHPA and ABC are pretty good groups. Okay. So, I really want to talk about elderflower. But since we talked about the berries, I need to say one other thing here. Which is that I just want to get elder out of the cold and flu box. Because that’s where people… I just realized I’m wearing purple for the elder segment.

Ryn (17:56):
You’re on theme.

Katja (17:57):
I just looked down, and I was like ha, this is all elderberry colors. Okay, anyway. If you’re listening on the pod, you can’t see. So, you’re just going to have to trust that. Okay. Anyway, sorry. But the thing is that I really want to get elderberry and elder in general out of the cold and flu box. Because it’s great there, but it does so much more. And so even before we launch into flowers, we can still talk about that with the berries. Because the berries are that deep, dark, black, purple, blue kind of color. And that is bioflavonoid content. Those colors are the phytochemicals that are doing that anti-inflammatory antioxidant kind of protective action in the body. And so you don’t have to find some book somewhere that says that elderberry is helpful for cardiovascular health because it strengthens the vasculature. You don’t have to find that in print. You know it is true because of the color. The color is what does that job. You don’t need to lab test. It’s one of those things where you can actually see the chemical who does the work, because the phytochemical is the thing that makes the color. It blows my mind all of the time. It’s so cool.

Ryn (19:23):
Yeah. And I mean, to get out of the cold and flu box, also, we can think about the way this plant’s been understood historically and traditionally. And one word that would kind of sum that up would be that this is an alterative. This is an herb that can help to improve the quality of your circulating fluids. It can help to eliminate wastes, things like that. In fact, some of those doses of elderberry that would affect your bowel movements. That’s connected to that sort of cleansing idea, right? It’s not somebody’s maybe first thought as a laxative, but…

Katja (19:56):
Yeah. I mean, you have to have a lot of it to get that kind of action. Not just a sprinkling on your granola, but the whole container, you know?

Ryn (20:04):
Yeah. Or you can take them. You can cook them down. You can cook the water down to a quarter of the original amount and drink that. Yeah, you’re going to get more of that kind of effect going on. Sure. But again, historically it would be thought of as like an herb that aids in your body’s capacity to clear wastes out of the system. And obviously that has much broader implications than I have a cold right now. I have a runny nose or whatever. Indeed runny nose wouldn’t even be the thing that would make you think of elderberry in a pre-virus knowing world.

Katja (20:36):
Right. Although elderflower maybe, because elderflower does have a long association with fever and respiratory illness, but specifically the fever aspect of it because of the diaphoretic. And it is super effective in that way. But when I think about the diaphoretic action of elderflower, honestly, I think a lot more of that on the emotional level than on the physiological level. Almost because nobody really even needs to talk much about elderflower as a fever herb. It’s like if anybody knows anything about herbalism, that is often one of the few things that they will… It’s one of the things that you learn very early on. And so I feel like it doesn’t need a lot of emphasis. But that diaphoretic action has emotional aspects as well. And in particular, when we think about the diaphoretic action of elderflower, it is like just think about champagne bubbles, right? How they’re bubbling up all of the time. You have this beautiful flute of champagne. And all the little bubbles are just so pretty bubbling up. When I think about elderflower, I think about it’s diaphoretic action in that way. So, when you have collected a lot of heat and tension in your head, often in the form of anger, frustration, even anxiety, but maybe anxiety that has a little edge to it. A little bit of stabby anxiety kind of, not just like run of the mill, soft, cuddly anxiety.

Ryn (22:26):
Yeah. That easy anxiety.

Katja (22:28):
Right, yeah. But it’s very urgent anxiety, right? All of those kinds of feelings is like all of those champagne bubbles bubbling up and putting all the pressure on the cork of the champagne bottle. And then when you start to open it, it pops, and champagne goes everywhere. When you are feeling like that emotionally, like you’re about to pop and champagne will go everywhere. Or your feelings of anger will go everywhere or whatever. That’s when I really think about elderflower. To kind of just turn those emotions into the very pretty sparkly bubbles that are gently floating to the top of the champagne glass, instead of the force and power that will shoot the cork all the way across the room and hit someone in the eye and whatever.

Ryn (23:22):
Yes. Do not point at your friends while opening. I’m pretty sure that’s what the little warning says on those.

Katja (23:27):
Or do, if you’re so angry that you need elderflower.

Formulating With Elderflower

Ryn (23:32):
Yeah. When we’re making a formula like that, I feel like we often put elderflower together with lemon balm and often with catnip.

Katja (23:44):
Or linden or chamomile, yeah.

Ryn (23:47):
The lemon balm and the catnip both have that same kind of relaxant diaphoretic quality that elder does. Linden is a little different. Linden can be a relaxant diaphoretic, I suppose. But it’s much more on the relaxant side than the specifically diaphoretic side.

Katja (24:04):
Yeah, okay. So, I think about it this way. If you have very head-based anger and anxiousness and edgy, sharp feelings, and it’s really in your head. Maybe you don’t even feel the rest of your body. Then I’m thinking about elderflower, maybe even just straight elderflower. If you have that kind of feeling, and your whole body is kind of buzzing. You feel like just a buzz everywhere in your body in the nerves. That’s when I’m adding linden. When you have that kind of anger in your head and a pit in the lower part of your guts or maybe lower gut cramping, that’s when I’m thinking chamomile. When you have that anger in your head and heartburn or and angry butterflies coming up out of your stomach. So, the up isn’t just all in your head ready to pop, but also your whole body is roiling up also. And I think roiling is a really good word there. That’s when I’m thinking of catnip, also maybe lemon balm there. Lemon balm I feel can be when the heat of your anger is in your whole body and in your head. That’s really when I’m thinking about lemon balm. And more than one of those could be true at the same time. And then now you have a more complex formula. That’s okay.

Ryn (25:36):
Yeah. We can put all of them in there together.

Katja (25:39):
But if you think about those descriptions, you can also see all the energetics of that. If you think about all your nerves buzzing, that is a dryness, like a frayed-ness. And linden has that moistening action right directly to the nerve cells. And you could go through all of those examples. And look like oh, okay. Yeah. I see the energetics that we’re matching up in each of these situations.

Ryn (26:09):
Right. And these are things that we might take as an infusion, a nice hot cup of tea. But you might also try it as a tincture. And that could be easy to carry around. And especially if you realize that you’re prone to this feeling of like the hot, angry heat building up in your emotional body, and your liver, and your heart, and your brain, and your face, and all these places. Then you might want to just be able to reach into your little bag, and grab some elder and lemon balm, and take a squirt of that, and let it out.

Katja (26:38):
Honestly, if you’re going to make a tincture anyway, make it an elixir, because you’re already feeling pretty bad. And if you’re going to take droppers of something, take droppers of something that will be sweet and delicious and delightful. Because that will be a really nice surprise in that moment. Oh, okay, something is nice. Ah, yes, yes.

Ryn (27:03):
Yeah. You can always treat yourself like a four-year-old.

Katja (27:07):
It’s okay. It’s okay.

Ryn (27:10):
Oh, sugar? Great. I’m happier now, yeah.

Katja (27:12):
Yes. I’ll have my elixir and a cookie please. It’s all right.

Ryn (27:17):
And hey, I mean, keep going with sugar, right? Let’s make a syrup. You can do it. If you have fresh elderflowers, you can just layer them. Flower layer, sugar layer, flower layer, sugar layer all the way up your jar. Leave that alone.

Katja (27:32):
Usually, traditionally, a little bit of lemon goes in there as well, like a very thin slice of lemon. Not big thick slices, because that overpowers the flavor. But just a little bit makes it really lovely.

Ryn (27:44):
Yeah. You can also do a syrup by making a honey infusion of your elderflowers and having that be the base.

Katja (27:52):
And that’s a little better because we aren’t actually advocating for all the sugar here. But listen, life is real. And if all the sugar is what’s required, then no judgment here.

Ryn (28:02):
Sure, yeah. Yes, and if you’re whatever the proper age is for whatever jurisdiction you find yourself, there’s also elderflower liqueur. And that’s pretty nice stuff.

Katja (28:13):
I really think we should make an elderflower mead. That would be quite lovely too.

Ryn (28:20):
Yeah, that’s a good idea. We could get the honey infused first. And then we could also have that mixed with an infusion. And then we can throw some extra ones into the bottle while it’s fermenting.

Katja (28:32):
Yeah. Okay, but it needs to be fresh elderflowers. Because dried elderflowers have that same flavor thing that elderberries have. When you make tea out of elderflowers or make tea out of elderberries, there’s like this lovely flavor and then this additional dirt flavor, or like sweat flavor, or some weird… There’s like a weird flavor that goes beside the lovely flavor. That is not the case with the fresh flowers.

Ryn (29:06):
Fresh are special.

Katja (29:07):
Yeah. Fancy.

Ryn (29:10):
Right. Yeah, that’s elder.

Katja (29:13):
That’s elder. Okay. So, you also will see sometimes… When covid was first kind of new, people were like have the bark. Have the leaves. There is some toxicity there. It’s not poison to kill you toxicity, but it is like…

Ryn (29:36):
Those parts are much more likely to cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, that kind of stuff.

Katja (29:41):
You don’t have to eat a whole watermelon worth to get those feelings. Yeah.

Ryn (29:46):
Yeah. And there was a little bit too much made by certain authors about the antiviral proteins found in the elder leaf. This is a similar issue to something called poke antiviral protein, which some of those same authors have also proposed as a major factor in the way that poke preparations can affect immune activity and fight off viruses and so on. The read that I get from people who are a little more rigorous about their phytochemistry is that these things are not actually going to be functional outside of a Petri dish. So, you can take poke leaf. You can take elder leaf. You can make an extract from it. You can squirt it onto a virus colony in a Petri dish, and you can see them die. That’s cool. But that’s not necessarily relevant to drinking infusion of these things in a human body and somehow getting those constituents to the site of the viral infection, right? That’s always the problem. That’s always the first thing to ask yourself when you read about something like this. Oh, you’re going to take this by mouth, and it’s going to go have impacts where? Where in the body? Where’s the covid? Where’s the flu hanging out? Is it in my mouth? Is it in my stomach? Is it in my intestine?

Katja (30:58):
Is it in my blood vessels?

Ryn (31:00):
If not, we need a way for the constituents to get there. And sometimes that can happen, right? You can take garlic. And you can have a strong impact on your respiratory mucosa because of the way the sulfur compounds in garlic move through your body and get eliminated through the lungs as a pathway of excretion. But that’s not going to happen with every substance you ingest. So, anyway. The takeaway here is that I’m not very sanguine about the idea of elder bark or elder leaf preparations as being a hundred times more powerful than elderberry or whatever other claims you’re going to hear about that.

Sassafras & A Touch of Moistening Leaf

Katja (31:33):
Yeah, no. Hey, but you know, whose leaves are awesome is sassafras. And this is a little trend that I’m kind of on lately anyway, of enjoying the leaves of plants where we typically work with the root. We just got a big bag of Angelica leaves. And I don’t usually have a lot of them. I enjoy Angelica leaves a lot and also the stalk, but I can’t usually get it. But we did just get some, and it’s really, really exciting. But that is true for sassafras leaf as well. And it’s really a lovely, lovely tea.

Ryn (32:26):
Yeah. I’m sort of wondering in this moment if this is our Yankee showing here, because…

Katja (32:33):
Your Yankee. I was raised in Texas.

Ryn (32:35):
Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sure, but that’s still not a Louisiana situation where you’re going to have food items – such as, say, a gumbo – made with sassafras leaf as a thickener, that kind of thing.

Katja (32:51):
We will not be doing that in this house.

Ryn (32:54):
No? No thickeners?

Katja (32:55):
No gumbo.

Ryn (32:56):
Ah, I see. But that is a place you hear about people working with sassafras leaf though, right, is as a thickening agent. And what does that mean? That means that you throw it into a pot of some liquid, and it gets more viscous. It gets more, one might even say, mucilaginous. Ah-ha.

Katja (33:12):

Ryn (33:13):
Yeah. So that’s what’s interesting about the sassafras leaf is that the root is a fairly drying agent. It’s going to act on your liver and your kidneys. And it’s going to get those draining, eliminative actions going on. But the leaf has a moistening quality.

Katja (33:27):
The leaf is one of those. It does, but it also has astringency. It has a very similar astringency to black tea and even a little bit of a black tea flavor. It’s really fancier than black tea.

Ryn (33:56):
Uh oh. They’re going to come for us. The Camellia crew is coming. Nothing is fancier than a well-made Pu-ehr.

Katja (34:05):
Okay. But like Earl Gray is fancier, right? There’s some little bit of extra in there. It’s like black tea with a little bit of fancy in there. Sassafras has that kind of flavor. And it is not moistening on the level of linden, you know. Maybe with a cold infusion, but a hot infusion is not. It certainly isn’t like marshmallow. And yet you can feel it. You can feel that there is something there. And then it just has like a little jacket of astringency on top.

Ryn (34:39):
Yeah. You know, the sassafras leaf, we’ve been adding it to a lot of things recently for – like you’ve been saying – a touch of moistening quality. A lot of times I’ll sneak this into a formula that I’m mostly making for you. Maybe it’s some calendula and self-heal and heather flowers.

Katja (35:00):
Yep. That’s for me.

Ryn (35:02):
Well, I’m going to drink this too. So, I’m going to put in a couple of spoons of the sassafras leaf, because I know that it will mitigate those drying effects for me and make it more tolerable. But also, I think this may be the moistening corrigent that you’re most happy to have included.

Katja (35:22):
Because it’s so gentle. It’s like, I’m not going to slime you. Don’t worry. We’re just going to have just a little bit of moistening. You can handle it. And I appreciate that. I really appreciate it. I like knowing oh, don’t worry. There’s still a smidge of just a little bit of astringency in here too. We’re balanced. We’re not going to slime you. That’s what it comes down to.

Ryn (35:50):
Yeah. It could be good to compare this to purple loosestrife, because purple loosestrife also shares that capacity to have both some demulcency, some mucilage, but also some astringency, some tannins. Plants are allowed to have both these qualities at the same time. It can feel a little confusing only if you assume all astringency ultimately equals drying and all demulcency ultimately equals moistening. And those two are in strong conflict. It’d be more accurate to say that yeah, the demulcents are going to bring moisture. The astringents bring tone, right, tonification. And I feel like it’s a good illustration of why we really do need that third term when we talk about energetics. Hot and cold, moist and dry, that’s super important. Foundationally you find versions of that turning up at the roots of every traditional energetic system that we’ve encountered. But tonifying versus relaxant or tense versus loose, that one really adds a lot of depth. It adds that third dimension to this kind of work. And it really, I think, helps to resolve some things that seem contradictory. If you were only to have hot or cold or moist or dry as energetic qualities indicated by taste or by flavor, you would feel the astringency. And you’d say well, this has to be drying. But when you can add in that element of toning, and you can keep tonifying and moistening as two separate, possibly concurrent actions of the same plant, then some really cool stuff opens up for you.

Katja (37:22):
You can kind of think of it like, since we mentioned gumbo, which I know lots of people love, but I just don’t. But you can think about it like okra. Is it slimy like okra, or is it a more refined kind of moisture like sassafras? Growing up, the only way I could possibly eat okra was if it was deep fried. And that’s not very helpful. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It is very tasty.

Ryn (38:06):
It’s not a particularly mucilaginous preparation of this.

Katja (38:08):
No, no, no. It’s basically they have dried all the mucilaginous aspect up and then yeah. But so, while you were describing the toning part, it’s like if you fill a Ziploc bag, and not a freezer bag. The thin sandwich bag kind of Ziploc bag. If you fill that up with water and then zip it, it’s extremely lax. Yes, it’s full of water. Great. But it has no integrity of its own. It just flops wherever you put it. Versus if you take a mason jar and fill it full of water, it’s full of water. And it is very contained. It will stay exactly where you put it. It’s a hard container. And so you can think about if you have moistening action with no toning action to it, you have your Ziploc baggy full of water. Versus if you have this lovely sassafras leaf, where it’s like here’s my teacup with the sassafras inside it. And it’s not floppy. It’s not wobbly. It’s neatly contained moisture.

Ryn (39:39):
Yeah. Valuable.

Katja (39:42):

Delicious Root Formulations & Alterative Actions

Ryn (39:43):
Okay. Well, we should talk about the root though or the root bark.

Katja (39:49):
Yes. Because delicious. Oh, and also functional.

Ryn (39:53):
Yeah. That’s the leaf infusion over there. I have this decoction. Which I did not just go with straight up sassafras root bark here. I put it together with some friends as is usual. I put it together with some sarsaparilla. Sassafras, and sarsaparilla and a couple of others are kind of the core of a root beer type flavor. Today though, instead of using smilax sarsaparilla, I had some Hemidesmus indicus, the Indian sarsaparilla.

Katja (40:25):
Do you know this morning when I was making space for catnip in this dirt that was not previously gardened, but is becoming garden, there was a little bit of wild sarsaparilla out there, which is an Aralia species. And I did not want to dig any of it up. I wanted it to stay. So, there will be catnip with interspersed wild sarsaparilla. And that’s fantastic. But I was not paying close enough attention. And there was one that was small, and I dug it before I noticed. And wild sarsaparilla, this Aralia species, has long roots. So, when you see them in the woods, they’re all connected actually. Their roots are like…

Ryn (41:19):

Katja (41:21):
Yeah, underground. And so this was just one little, little. He was only like maybe three inches tall or four inches tall. But the root underneath was… Also, I mean, not super thick, but long and thick enough. And my point here is that, oh, we can put it in with the…yeah.

Ryn (41:42):
We should, yeah.

Katja (41:43):
Yeah. In the decoction.

Ryn (41:44):
Yeah. Because I had run out of Smilax. And I was like oh, that’s no good. I want some sarsaparilla in here. But fortunately we had Hemidesmus instead. Now we can have Aralia. Yes. We can have a whole bunch of sarsaparillans.

Katja (41:56):
So, many different sarsaparilla plants. And listen, these aren’t related. They just are related by the name sarsaparilla.

Ryn (42:04):
Yeah. And to some extent by their actions,

Katja (42:06):
Right. The name sarsaparilla and also like a similar functionality. But that similar functionality is not happening because it’s like peppermint-spearmint. It’s not that kind of similarity. These are plants that are not necessarily related, but still have similar mechanisms.

Ryn (42:28):
Yeah. Right. And then also I put in a touch of ginger and some birch bark for the methyl salicylates, that wintergreen-y type of flavor. So yeah, this is sort of a root beer type of a blend. This is a combo where I often like to sneak in some adaptogens. Today I put in goji berry. That was the major one. And I was going to throw in some licorice, but I know you don’t like it. So, I went with goji berry instead as an alternative sweetening adaptogen. Got that in the mix there today. This is the way that I usually take sassafras – I’ve got to say – is in a decoction, in a combination like this. Yeah.

Katja (43:13):
And you know, root beer in general, like when we say root beer today, we have a very specific flavor in mind. But root beer traditionally was a category of recipes who did the same thing in the body but did not always have the same ingredients. And so the thing that they were doing in the body was this kind of spring-cleaning type of action. Getting all of your juices flowing, helping with pathways of elimination, this is alterative action. Sort of just doing a nice fluid refresh throughout the body.

Ryn (44:06):
Yeah. Wake up the liver and the kidneys. Make sure your bowels are getting everything out that doesn’t need to stay in. Yeah.

Katja (44:14):
And not in a purgative kind of way. Just in a oh hey, you know, I should probably vacuum over there. You know what I mean? It isn’t like oh, we’re just going to tear everything down and build it again. No, no. We’re just going to tidy up.

Ryn (44:31):
Yeah. But I’ve always liked to take this kind of a formula and say well, that’s great. Let’s do some cleaning, some inner detoxification. And at the same time, we can also work with some adaptogens to boost up some stress resilience and that kind of thing. They fit in together really well. You’re making a decoction anyway, so throw some eleuthero in there. Throw some ashwagandha in there. That’s fine. Because ashwagandha by itself, it’s not the most delicious decoction, right? But you put in these herbs. You broaden the effect of the formula. You make it taste better. And then somebody might actually drink it. Because I know you, podcast listener, are willing to drink things that are bitter, and earthy, and taste like peppery mud, and all kinds of stuff like that. Because you’re cool with it, right? But sometimes you want to give these things to a friend who hasn’t had the delightful opportunity to chew on a root that they just dug out of the ground.

Katja (45:33):
Okay. That part is pretty cool.

Ryn (45:34):
Doesn’t have those emotional connections to it, whatever.

Katja (45:37):
But on the other hand, listen. Even when you’ve been an herbalist for a long time, sometimes you’re like I just can’t do bitter today. This is not the day for bitter. I would like my medicine to taste like root beer, please. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. You know, a couple other ones who would be nice in that blend would be codonopsis and astragalus. Both have a mild sweet flavor. Both of them actually taste quite lovely even by themselves. But they have a little mild sweet flavor, so you’re getting that kind of root beer sweetness that you expect in there.

Warnings About Sassafras & Safrole

Ryn (46:21):
Yeah. Okay. One other thing with sassafras, right? Because it is this herb that acts on your liver. And it can get things moving and flowing through there. You also will see warnings about sassafras regarding the liver. And this is connected to a constituent called safrole. The FDA doesn’t allow sassafras extracts to be used as flavoring agents unless they go through a process that eliminates this constituent from them. And the reason is that they’re worried about safrole being carcinogenic. But as is the case with a number of herbal constituents and therefore the herbs that they travel in, this is situation where the constituent is present in the root in relatively low amounts compared to the amounts that were administered to the test animals that did lead to cancerous growth. So, by this I mean if you take an extract of the plant. And you distill it down. And you isolate one chemical, and you concentrate that, and give it to an animal at whatever milligrams of substance per gram of weight of the mouse. And then you scale up that amount to a human size. And then you look at how much of a giant pile of sassafras root bark it would take for you to eat or drink or do whatever to ingest that equivalent amount of safrole that’s threatening to liver function. It’s not actually possible under normal circumstances, if we’re talking about going from the chopped up root bits in a jar on your counter to something that you prepare at home.

Katja (48:01):
It requires lab work to concentrate it enough to create the dangerous situation.

Ryn (48:07):
Yeah. Especially with water preparations, which are the most traditional and have the longest history of being applied. There’s some evidence that a tincture is going to extract a somewhat higher proportion of safrole than a water extract is. But of course we take much smaller doses of tincture than we do of decoction. And so that sort of balances that out. If somebody was really worried about liver function. If they had had previous liver damage or cirrhosis or other issues like that. I could see a rationale for wanting to steer clear of this plant just on an abundance of caution.

Katja (48:42):
Right, right, right.

Ryn (48:44):
But for most folks who are doing pretty well and have a functioning liver and all of that, I don’t think that there’s any particular need to get worried about having some sassafras now and again. Especially if it is now and again. Especially if it is in formulation with other herbs. Especially if it’s in a decoction or a water extract. So, that’s where we come down on that particular issue.

Katja (49:06):
But definitely don’t extract the safrole content, and concentrate it, and then inject it into your bloodstream. That will cause problems. Don’t do that.

Ryn (49:17):
I think it’s a bad idea.

Katja (49:18):
Yeah. That would be a bad idea.

Ryn (49:19):
But honestly, I think that’s a bad idea for a lot of constituents in plants, even ones that are pretty benign otherwise.

Katja (49:25):
I mean really. Just injecting things, that’s serious.

Ryn (49:31):
You’ve got to know what you’re doing, right?

Katja (49:32):
You’ve got to know what you’re doing.

Ryn (49:33):
Now we’ve got to have… yeah. We’ve got to know that that’s not good.

Katja (49:34):
I don’t think I would just inject chamomile tea either.

Ryn (49:38):
But of course we’re being a little facetious here. But our broader point is just that’s not identical physiologically, chemically, in terms of safety or whatever. So, conclusions that are made based on isolating a compound and injecting it intravenously or whatever, those don’t translate directly over to what happens when we make and drink tea.

Katja (50:01):
Which is kind of a bummer. Basically what they did was they said oh, at high concentrations, this can be dangerous. That should not be the end of the story. That was the end of the story. That’s what got published and what everybody learned about. But that should actually be the beginning of the story. And then they should say okay, how relevant is this in each type of preparation that we might make? And that’s the data that we actually needed that study to get to.

Ryn (50:31):
Yeah. I guess to be an advocate for whoever this may be. I don’t think it’s the devil exactly. But one thing that I do try to bring back to my own mind sometimes when I get a little frustrated about these prohibitions on various herbs or extracts or whatever, is that these regulations are built around extraordinary, unusual behavior. Somebody who – I don’t know – took some… I’m trying to think of a sassafras example. Somebody who was taking a product that was made with a bunch of sassafras extract before all of these changes went into the law. But they were consuming like 30 of these things in a day. Or they were drinking nothing but sassafras extract for a month. Because we have other examples from other plants like that. Somebody who died from comfrey because he ate nothing else for a season. Or somebody who had high blood pressure from licorice because they ate two boxes of this really concentrated extract candy thing. So, a lot of times these laws are built around behavior that seems absurd to most of us. And that can be frustrating. But I’m also like well, people are going to do that stuff.

Katja (51:46):
Yeah. Somebody out there has done it. That’s how it occurred to people to study it. So, okay.

Ryn (51:54):
And so I can kind of get to a place where I’m like all right, sure. For the mass market, for somebody who wants to make a candy product or whatever, it’s probably better that we keep these kind of rules on the books. But at the same time, we need to be able to acknowledge that for an individual herbalist at home who likes to make a root beer decoction every now and again, sassafras is not a threat to their liver health. And just to be able to distinguish these cases really clearly.

Katja (52:20):
Right. Right. Right.

Ryn (52:21):
Yeah. Okay. Cool. Well, I think we’re going to wrap up here. I did want to make a brief ad for one of our courses. And this is our course, Elements of Detoxification. I wanted to bring this one up because both elder and sassafras, they can turn up in discussions of detox, whether those are ancient or modern. In the modern world, a lot of people look at detox and they’re like, I’m going to cleanse myself. I’m going to get all those wastes out. I’m going to empty my colon. This is going to be wonderful.

Katja (52:53):
I’m going to detoxify my… You know.

Ryn (52:56):
Yeah. Thinking of it as a sort of thing that is done in a short timeframe with some kind of an intense intervention usually involving a lot of poop. This is sort of the modern approach to detox. And what a lot of kits, and products, and wonder cures or whatever are going to be built around is that model of detox. What we offer in this course is a really different view. We look at detoxification as a natural process of your body that’s going on in every cell and every system of your body all the time. That it’s necessary to life. That it’s an ongoing process. One that we can support, and we can improve, and we can energize through herbs and through holistic practices. But it’s not something that you need to block off a couple days where no one’s going to see you.

Katja (53:49):
Where you’re just going to drink lemon juice and maple syrup or whatever.

Ryn (53:55):
Yeah. So, we offer this elemental model of detoxification. Looking at it from the lens of earth, air, fire, and water. Ways that those can manifest in our herb choices and also our holistic actions: sleep and movement and things like that.

Katja (54:10):
You know, it’s kind of like the clean as you go approach to detox, which is gentler for your body. It’s healthier because you’re not letting stuff pile up. It’s just constant maintenance and repair.

Ryn (54:25):
Yeah. So, you can find that course, Elements of Detoxification, along with all of our other courses at online.commonwealthherbs.com. All right. We’ll see you there. We’ll be back soon with another episode of the Holistic Herbalism Podcast. Until then, take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (54:47):
Drink some tea,

Ryn (54:49):
And put some leaves and flowers in it.

Katja (54:51):

Ryn (54:53):
Bye everyone.


Join our newsletter for more herby goodness!

Get our newsletter delivered right to your inbox. You'll be first to hear about free mini-courses, podcast episodes, and other goodies about holistic herbalism.