- Family Liliaceae
- Smilax officinalis
- Smilax aristolochioefolia
- Red China Root, Greenbrier, Brown Sarsaparilla, Bamboo Brier, Vera Cruz, Small Spikenard, Wild Sasp, Chinese Root, China Root
- Spanish: Zarsaparilla, Cocolmeca/Cuculmeca
- Nahuatl: Mecapatli, Cozumecatl
- Maya: Koh-keh
- None listed.
The species can be found in tropical rainforests and temperate regions in the Americas, Asia, India, and Australia. In Europe, the only variety is S. aspera, which is found in the Mediterranean region. The plant is a woody, climbing, evergreen perennial, growing to fifteen feet and having broadly ovate leaves, tendrils, and small greenish, yellow, or brown flowers. The root is gathered throughout the year, but mainly from January to May.
The Smilax genus contains several species of sarsaparilla and some confusion exists between them and other unrelated species which also bear the same name. Smilax is considered to be the true sarsaparilla but Americans often use the American Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis). Therefore, when the two countries read each others herbal literature, it can be confusing as to which herb is being referred. Others that also carry the name are Schisandra coccinea, Hardenbergia violacea, andHemidesmus indicus.
It is said that the plant was introduced to Seville about 1536 from “New Spain” and Honduras. It was heralded as a cure for syphilis and reportedly used in the Caribbean with some success. The claims were inflated, however, and its popularity soon waned. During its height of popularity, 1831, for example, 176,854 pounds of the herb were imported into England alone.
It was found to be one of the more excellent New World remedies encountered by Pedro de Cieze de Leon in his Chronicle of Peru written in 1553.
The Aztecs used this herb in the treatment of syphilis, chronic skin ailments, especially those that cause putrid ulcerations, and in cases of bone disease.
In Spanish, zarsaparilla means “little bramble vine”, an apt description of the plant.
The 16th century physician, Nicholás Monardes devoted two chapters of his Joyfulle Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde to this herb. Extolling the virtues of the plant, Monardes followed the traditional theory of the time that when a body was invaded by an illness, it had to get out by means of bleeding, diuretics, laxatives, or with such herbs as sarsaparilla, through profuse sweating. He describes an arduous cure in which a thick juice is made by soaking and then boiling the chopped root or root bark. The afflicted person was made to drink this concoction three times a day while forsaking all other nourishment with the exception of a little chicken. Wrapped in warm clothing, the patient would then “sweat it out”. The treatment was a prolonged one, lasting more than two weeks; but, according to Morardes, it was highly effective against a variety of illnesses, including syphilis.
In the US, before it was replaced by arificial agents, sarsaparilla root was the original flavouring for root beer. Cowboys in the Wild West might have ordered a bottle of sarsaparilla instead of a beer at the saloon, especially if they had just recently visited the local brothel.
Early records report its use among the Native Americans, who considered the herb a supreme spring blood tonic. In 1624, it was found that the Hurons used it for healing sores, ulcers, and wounds. In 1708, it was noted that it cured dropsy. The Chippewa, Meskwaki, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Tête de Boule tribes all reported to early settlers that when an illness threatened to turn into consumption, sarsaparilla should be taken immediately. The Penobscot Indians drank a root tea to treat colds and coughs. Topically, the tea was used to treat ringworm and other skin problems.
By the mid-1800s, country doctors were using it in the treatment of many diseases, including consumption, scrofula, syphilis, skin diseases, and anywhere that a purifying medicine might be needed. By 1868, it had found its way into the official Canadian Pharmacopoea.
In an 1876 Canadian Pharmacy edition, a recipe for an original root beer was listed: 8 ounces of sarsaparilla, licorice, cassia, and ginger. Two ounces of cloves, three ounces of coriander seed. Boil for fifteen minutes in eight gallons of water and let stand until cool. Strain through flannel and add to it in the soda fountain, twelve pints syrup, four pints of honey, four ounces tincture of ginger, and four ounces of a solution of citric acid.
- stops bleeding
- steroidal saponins (1-3%)
- phytosterols (including beta- and e-sitosterol)
- starch (about 50%)
- sarsapic acid
The entire underground part including the roots and tuberous swellings produced by the runners
One study in the 1940s showed that psoriasis patients improved with the use of the herb, but the study was criticized because of its design.
In China, tests showed that up to 90% of the acute cases of syphylis were effectively treated with sarsaparilla.
The herb is an excellent blood-purifier and alternative. It is frequently used in the treatment of all infectious diseases where the blood shows some abnormal quality.
It has long been used to bring relief to such skin problems as eczema, psoriasis, and itchiness.
A decoction is often used as a treatment for ringworm and parasitic skin infections.
It can help treat rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout.
Its testosterogenic effect leads to increased muscle bulk and has a potential for treating impotence.
Its progesterogenic action makes it beneficial in premenstrual problems, debility, and depression associated with menopause.
The plant is used in Britain as a tonic and restorative.
In Mexico, it is frequently consumed as a tonic and for its reputed aphrodisiac effects. It has also traditionally been used to treat a variety of skin problems.
Native Amazonians use it to improve virility and to treat menopausal problems.
Chinese research indicates that the root has a potential in treating leptospirosis, a rare disease transmitted to humans by rats. The root, in combination with five other herbs, was also tested as a treatment for syphilis; and, reportedly, 90% of the acute cases were cleared.
To make a gourmet version of a home-made root beer syrup: Take one cup of grated ginger root, two cups of sassafras root, two cups of sarsaparilla root, and one teaspoon of ginseng root. Place all in a large pot with a gallon of water. Let the mixture boil for half an hour or until the water had reduced by half. Pour through a spaghetti strainer into another pot. Add five cups of honey and bring again to a high boil before pouring into jars. Two tablespoons of the mixture with club soda is then served.