Sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis)
Usage / Preparation
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The fragrance of the root is considered pleasant with a spicy sweet taste.
A different species also known as Sarsaparilla was formerly used extensively as a flavoring agent. Most notably, it was traditionally the ingredient that gave root beer its distinctive taste.
Sarsaparilla's main plant chemicals include: acetyl-parigenin, astilbin, beta-sitosterol, caffeoyl-shikimic acids, dihydroquercetin, diosgenin, engeletin, essential oils, epsilon-sitosterol, eucryphin, eurryphin, ferulic acid, glucopyranosides, isoastilbin, isoengetitin, kaempferol, parigenin, parillin, pollinastanol, resveratrol, rhamnose, saponin, sarasaponin, sarsaparilloside, sarsaponin, sarsasapogenin, shikimic acid, sitosterol-d-glucoside, smilagenin, smilasaponin, smilax saponins A-C, smiglaside A-E, smitilbin, stigmasterol, taxifolin, and titogenin. (1)
Sarsaparilla root has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. Many shamans and medicine men in the Amazon use sarsaparilla root internally and externally. New World traders found it and introduced it into European medicine in the 1400s. (1)
Sarsaparilla was also used by indigenous people of Mexico, such as the Aztecs. Its nature was considered to be "dry and hot", a reference to the ancient system of characterizing medicinal plants. Mexican Sarsaparilla was introduced to Seville about 1536. Few plants have had the rise and fall in popularity that sarsaparilla has had. When it was introduced it was considered remarkably effective for diverse chronic diseases, and many doctors of the time wrote about its benefits. During its height of popularity, 1831, for example, 176,854 pounds of the herb were imported into England alone. (2)
For use in medicine, sarsaparilla root is dried and chopped, shredded, or powdered. In Chinese medicine, sarsaparilla is combined with a number of other ingredients into an oral compound, while Indian traditional healers apply the juice of sarsaparilla leaves topically. (3)
A Tribe of climbing and shrubby plants, with oval leaves conspicuously veined. Sarsaparilla got its name from two Spanish words: "Zarza" and "Parilla," referring to the thorny vines of the plant. The plant now under consideration is a native of Central America, especially of Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and New Grenada. Several varieties of the root come upon the market, of which the present species seems most valuable. According to Humboldt and Bonpland, this plant has an angular, twining, and somewhat prickly stem, the young shoots being smooth. Leaves ovate-oblong, acute, smooth, tough, five to seven-nerved, a foot long, on short petioles, with stipules in the form of tendrils. The roots are slender, very long, several from the same collum, reddish-brown, and tough. (4)
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(1) Sarsaparilla, Raintree Plant Database
(2) Sarsaparilla, Innvista
(3) Sarsaparilla, Drug Digest
(4) Smilax Officinalis, King's American Dispensatory
(5) Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, edited by Jeff M. Jellin
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|The species can be found in tropical rainforests and temperate regions in the Americas, Asia, India, and Australia. Sarsaparilla became known in Europe through the Spanish in Mexico and south-America. Smilax has been recognized as a general medicine in traditional cultures in Mexico and south-America, as well as in China and India. Throughout history it has been uses for a variety of purposes. The root is said to improve physical performance(5).|