When I hear the word “sarsaparilla,” I think of the Wild West. I imagine cowboys bellying up to the bar for a sarsaparilla tonic. Nowadays, we focus on how refreshing root beers and sarsaparilla tonics are; historically, a favored medicinal use of sarsaparilla in the United States was in treating syphilis, among other diseases and disorders.
The plant in question is in the Smilax genus, and the whole genus is said to be similarly endowed with a group of phytochemicals that give the plants a great flavor and help improve the quality of blood. The species used in traditional recipes depended on where the recipe was written. Commercially, the tropical species S. ornata or S. regelii are typically on offer. Tommie Bass, a well-known Appalachian herbalist who passed away in 1996, attested to the utility of American native Smilax spp. as a replacement for the tropical varieties. While plants within the genus contain similar compounds, the concentration appears to differ across species. Some species are stronger than others, and the temperate varieties seem to be the weaker members of the genus.
Smilax is a genus of 300 to 350 species concentrated throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. I met my first one, bristly greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides, featured in the slideshow), in the Ohio woods. Most of the plants in this genus have a similar look to them. They’re all vines, and most have thorns on them, thus the common name “greenbrier.” You may also see them commonly called “Honduran sarsaparilla” and “Jamaican sarsaparilla.” They quickly grow to form a living mat. In some places, they can take over the forest canopy if unmanaged, much like kudzu in the American South.
Smilax spp. spread by runners, and the roots — which can reach up to 8 feet long! — are the part we use. These roots can be harvested sustainably, and, in some cases, harvesting can help preserve balance in the surrounding ecosystem. In many places, greenbriers are the only vines with both tendrils and thorns. They’re highly sought after for food and medicine, and are mentioned in many books and blogs for foragers.
If you’re familiar with the plants you find in a temperate forest, however, you might be thinking of an entirely different plant. In Ohio (and much of the rest of North America), the common name “sarsaparilla” or “wild sarsaparilla” will lead you astray. Wild sarsaparilla’s Latin name is Aralia nudicaulis, and it’s a member of the order Apiales, which includes the carrot and ginseng families. A. nudicaulis grows as a thornless understory plant. Conversely, the Smilax genus is in the order Liliales and has more in common with onions than with A. nudicaulis. To make identification a bit messier, wild sarsaparilla roots have long been used as an herbalist’s temperate zone replacement for the tropically grown true sarsaparilla. The foundation of Americans’ love affair with root beer is tangled up in the sarsaparilla confusion as well. Many old recipes for home brewing included “sarsaparilla,” referring to both Smilax spp. and A. nudicaulis.
Sarsaparilla was traditionally billed as a medicinal tonic, and entered the European and American pharmacopeia as a reliable treatment for syphilis, but the plant has many other useful qualities. Plants in the Smilax genus are particularly high in antioxidants, plant sterols, flavonoids, and saponins. These chemicals are helpful for balancing hormones and supporting overtaxed adrenal glands. Sarsaparilla tea is highly recommended for those who are experiencing wild hormone fluctuations, as in menopause.
True sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.) was the foundation for many sarsaparilla and root beer soft drinks, in part because of the foamy quality lent by its high concentration of saponins. Many resources claim that foaminess was the sole reason it was added to root beer, but I think that if you taste root beer made with sarsaparilla, you’ll disagree. There’s a lovely, subtle flavor that distinguishes it from root beer made only with sassafras. In America, sarsaparilla was added to sassafras for flavor until the creation of synthetic flavors ousted both from the soft drink manufacturing world; many other countries continue to produce sarsaparilla soda with traditional ingredients.
In many cases, the original American sarsaparilla sodas weren’t even made with any Smilax. Many of the sarsaparilla sodas that were popular in 19th-century North America were made with birch oil and sassafras instead. Sarsaparilla was more likely to be present in root beer, and can take more credit for any purported medicinal benefit in North America.
Despite thousands of years of recorded use throughout the tropics, Europe, and America, is sarsaparilla relevant today? It’s a pretty vine when maintained properly. It has been used in landscaping in small measure for its red, black, or purple berries. The small, green-to-white flowers grow in clusters, and are often less striking than the leaves. Some people speak highly of jams and jellies made with the berries, while others say they lack flavor. The leaves and early shoots can be eaten in spring, much like asparagus, to take advantage of the plant’s high nutritional value. All Smilax spp. are particularly high in chromium, selenium, iron, and zinc.
Because the plant has a long history of use for helping the liver detoxify blood, it’s been the subject of many clinical studies. It has been proven effective in treating gout, acne, psoriasis, eczema, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, and leprosy. In many parts of the world, it’s used to treat infertility and as an aphrodisiac.
At Mockingbird Meadows, my honey, herb, and teaching farm, we’ve used sarsaparilla for years in products for hormonal balancing, and I’ve always liked it. I found myself drinking a lot of the root beer tea recipe included in this article while doing deeper research into the history of the plant. The more I read, the more I thought of people in my life who could stand to enjoy some sarsaparilla. In the spirit of “everything old is new again,” perhaps it’s time to revive the popularity sarsaparilla enjoyed in the 1800s. We could use a tasty way to filter out the toxins in our daily diets and relieve some of the symptoms of the diseases we encounter.
Try sarsaparilla for yourself in these recipes:
Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, author, speaker, and educator who homesteads with her family in central Ohio. Find her book Heal Local in the Heirloom Gardener store.