Tag Archives: Sassafras

‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees’: Medicinal recipes and tree ingredients

By Anne Stobart

As a herbal practitioner, I have long been interested in historical uses of trees from folklore to domestic practices related to health. Recently, I have been looking at early modern medicinal recipes to consider how people might have obtained tree-based ingredients. Here, I briefly overview recipes in several English printed seventeenth-century books, the highly popular Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) [1] and compare with a later publication Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies (1692).[2]

Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.
Figure 1. Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.

Trees can be defined as large woody perennial plants, often self-supporting with a single stem and having branches at some height from the ground. Many medicinal items can be obtained from trees including fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, sap, bark and twigs, and provide ingredients for medicinal recipes. These can be readily distinguished as sourced either from native and naturalised trees in the British Isles or from trees native to other countries and regions. Most native trees are regarded as having considerable folklore use, although the actual records evidencing such uses may be partial.[3 ]

Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).
Figure 2. Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).

In Elizabeth Grey’s Choice Manuall (Figure 1), just under a third of the recipes, 112 altogether, contain ingredients originating from trees. Of these, 19 recipes can be identified as using parts of native trees – mainly ash, elder, hazel, hawthorn, holly, oak (Figure 2). Some recipes are simples, involving a single key ingredient, often based on leaves or fruits that might be available in the hedgerow at certain times of the year. Amongst recipes for bruises is the instruction to ‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees, and put them in paper, roast them, and break them, and drink as much of the powder as will lye upon a sixpence every morning’ (p.77). Another more complex recipe for distillation of ‘Aqua composita for the Collick and Stone’ (p.137) calls for birch leaves and haws, or the fruits of hawthorn (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws
Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws (author’ s photograph)

Some tree-based ingredients, such as bark (often called rind), may have required some effort to obtain. The use of bark dried to a powder appears several times, as in this example:

“For the Strangullion or the Stone.

Take the inner rind of a young ash, between two or three yeares of growth, dry it to pouder, and drinke of it as much at once, as will lye on a sixpence in Ale or White wine, and it will bring present remedie: The partie must be kept warm two hours after it.”(p.88)

Another recipe uses the inner bark of elder seethed with daisy roots in a butter ointment for an inflamed throat (p.90). Obtaining bark, particularly its removal from the tree and preparation, could require tools with sharp edges. If taken from the entire circumference, bark removal would cause the death of the branch or tree. Some tree barks were readily available because they were felled for other purposes such as timber, but they were destined for use in tanning leather. Apart from building needs, trees produced other valuable crops from fuel and fodder for livestock. Although some trees might have been accessible in a hedgerow, many were in woodlands or fields, requiring permission to access their produce, and these rights or ownership could be subject to conflict [4].

However, ingredients from native trees were few in number compared to exotic trees in the Choice Manual recipes. The great majority of tree-based ingredients (83%) were imports derived from tree bark and fruits, such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, as well as resins such as myrrh and frankincense. Other fruits and nuts such as dates and walnuts were included in medicinal broths and syrups. Recipes for external preparations often called for oils deriving from almond or olive trees. These items were generally products to be purchased from an apothecary or spicer.

Such imported ingredients were also popular in the later seventeenth-century recipe book of Robert Boyle’s Medicinal experiments, which included tree-sourced items in fourteen recipes. There were no native trees to be seen, with the exception of oil of juniper which was probably of European origin and purchased. Boyle’s recipe book contained a (relatively) new introduction from North America which was sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Figure 4). The aromatic bark and roots were particularly noted for their medicinal uses, and sassafras appeared in recipes for ‘A Lime water for Obstructions and Consumptions’ and ‘A Stomachical Tincture’ (pp. 12, 88).

Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)
Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)

In comparing these two English recipe books, from mid to late seventeenth century, we see that the popular Choice Manual included a range of native tree items, but such native sources were not included in Medicinal Experiments. However, both books included many exotic tree-derived ingredients, and Boyle’s book of recipes added a new item of sassafras from the Americas. I hope to investigate further how the uses of tree ingredients developed in the early modern period.

[1] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653).

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies, for the Most Part Simple, and Easily Prepared (London: Printed for Sam Smith, 1692).

[3] On folklore see David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004) and Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford: Windgather, 2009).

An Early Modern Medicine for a Re-emerging Disease

By Glennda Bayron

A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Jane Baber’s cookbook (Wellcome MS 108), there is a medicinal recipe “For the Ricketts” tucked between a recipe to treat rheumy eyes and another for preserving raspberries. For many of the medicinal recipes in early modern receipt books, there is often no clear modern disease correlation, but rickets has again recently started to become more common in the western world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rickets is a “disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency, which results in abnormal calcium and phosphorus metabolism and deficient mineralization of bone (osteomalacia) with skeletal deformity”.[1] In April 2012, congenital rickets was found to have resulted in the death of a little girl in London. Since the disease is uncommon in Britain, the parents had initially been charged with murder. With the resurgence of the disease, physicians and parents need to be aware of its early signs, with an eye to prevention. Modern treatments for rickets include increasing the amount of vitamin D and calcium in a child’s diet.

Rickets 2
Jane Baber, Wellcome Library, WMS 108, f. 4v.

The recipe in Mrs. Baber’s cookery book calls for speecke, rosemary, camamill, sage, verbane, hayhoes, nipp, neats foote oyle, butter, ale, and sasafras.  While some of these are cooking herbs that we use today, many of them are unrecognizable to the modern chef (or doctor, for that matter). Through researching herbal databases as well as help from others, I was able to determine what the uncommon ingredients were and how they were beneficial. “Speecke” turns out to be spike lavender, which is used as an anti-inflammatory. [2] “Verbane” is considered to strengthen the nervous system and creates a relaxing effect on the body.[3]  “Hayhoes” is the shortened version of hayhooves, another name for alehoof, which is often used with chamomile flowers (also in this recipe) as a poultice for abscesses.[4] “Neats foote oyle” is comprised of boiled cow skin bones and feet and is used today for shining leather and there is no record of a modern medicinal use.[5] “Nipp” or catnip, an ingredient not commonly found in your medical doctor’s office, is found in many holistic medicines to treat insomnia, anxiety, migraines, indigestion, gas, and to assist with delayed menstruation in girls.[6]  Sassafras is “the dried bark of this tree, used medicinally as an alterative; also an infusion of this”.[7] Although considered poisonous, it is still used to treat urinary tract disorders, syphilis, gout, cancer, and high blood pressure.[8]

Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw,  Wikimedia Commons.
Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw, Wikimedia Commons.

Barber’s recipe calls for the ingredients to be boiled together and applied by cloth to the joints of the child–minding the lower back as to not weaken the joints. The child must then drink ale with sliced sassafras in it. In the mid-seventeenth century, Hannah Wooley describes a beer with herbs boiled into it as the cure for rickets.[9] The Queen’s Closet Opened (1659) contains a recipe that created an ointment to apply to the weak joints of a child’s body afflicted with rickets.  What these two recipes show is that while the recipes were different, the methods of curing the disease were similar, including ingestion of ale with herbs and application of ointment on joints.  Given that all three recipes provide a similar cure, they suggest the widespread thought and practices in seventeenth-century England. Rickets treatments focused on the results of the problem, from inflammation and skin problems to pain and anxiety. Something, perhaps, for modern physicians to keep in mind.


[1] “rickets, n.”. OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[2] Thanks to Rebecca Laroche for the help identifying “Speecke” and “Hayhoes.” See also: “Lavender (Spike) Essential Oil”, Mountain Rose Herbs, viewed 10 May 2013.

[3] “Vervain Herbal Information”, Vervain / Verbena Officinalis Herbal Information. Indigo Herbs of Glastonbury, viewed 10 May 2013.

[4] “Alehoof (Glechoma Hederacea)”, TJ Clark Liquid Mineral Supplements, viewed 10 May 2013.

[5] “neatsfoot oil, n.”. OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[6] “Catnip: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings”, WebMD. Viewed 23 March 2013; “nip, n.”. OED Online, accessed March 2013.

[7] “sassafras, n.”, OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[8] “Sassafras: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings”, WebMD, viewed 23 March 2013.

[9] Hannah Wooley, The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675), section 57.

Glennda Bayron is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.