Medicinal Uses of Sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla is good for much more than flavoring root beer — if you can track down the correct plant!

| Summer 2018

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.

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