scientific name: Smilax officinalis
other common names: Cuculmeca, zazaparilla, brown sarsaparilla
growing areas: Native to Central America and Colombia
physical description: Sarsaparilla is a woody vine that can grow to a length of about 15 feet. It has tendrils that help it climb, ovate (egg-shaped) leaves, and green flowers. Its root is narrow and very long and is used for medicinal purposes.
traditional uses: The plant was brought from the New World to Spain, along with China root (Smilax china), with great fanfare in the sixteenth century as a cure for syphilis after it had been used with some success in the Caribbean. It was listed in Nicholas Mo-nardes's book Joyful Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde as a wonderful medicinal plant of that time. However, its usefulness as a cure for venereal disease dropped off, although it continued to be used for that purpose well into the nineteenth century. It became a flavoring agent for root beer but has been replaced by artificial ingredients.
In traditional medicine, sarsaparilla has been used as a so-called blood purifier, as an anti-inflammatory, and as a cleansing agent. It is commonly used to treat psoriasis and eczema. It has steroid components and for that reason is reported to have been used by athletes as a performance-boosting medicine, as well as a possible treatment for impotence. It does not, however, contain testosterone, as some popularly believed. In Costa Rica it is used as a cold remedyf and a tonic for boosting immunity, and in Jamaica it is used as a diuretic. Commission E reported that it is used for rheumatic complaints, for kidney diseases, and as a diuretic and diaphoretic.
availability and dosage: Sarsaparilla is available in powdered form as a tea or tablet and also as a liquid. For psoriasis, some experts recommend taking 1 to 4 grams of dried root or up to 30 milliliters of concentrated sarsaparilla compound as a decoction. A couple of teaspoons of powdered root as a decoction are also recommended as a diuretic.
contraindications: Pregnant or breast-feeding women should not use sarsaparilla. It is also contraindicated if an individual is taking digitalis or bismuth.
special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
Sarsaparilla is considered by the Food and Drug Administration as safe for use as a flavoring agent. However, Commission E labels it as a medicinal plant whose use is unapproved. The commission cautions that sarsaparilla can lead to gastric upset and temporary kidney impairment. Sarsaparilla may also affect the action of other herbs taken with it, and the commission cautions that it may also interact with digitalis and bismuth. Other experts say it can lead to nausea or kidney damage.
medical research: Medical research into sarsaparilla, given its long history of use as a medicinal plant, is rather modest. One study from the 1940s found that psoriasis patients treated with sarsaparilla showed improvement. However, that study has been criticized because of its design. Sarsaparilla has shown anti-inflammatory activity in rodents. There have been reports of tests in China showing that up to 90 percent of acute cases of syphilis were effectively treated with sarsaparilla.