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Sarsaparilla and its adaptogen allies

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Location: Blue Ridge Mountains
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Sarsaparilla is one of those legendary New World herbs that became so popular that fortunes were made exporting the herb and stories telling its almost magical powers to increase health and vitality became part of folklore.  In tales of the old west, a cowboy or gunfighter could walk into a rough saloon full of gamblers, prostitutes, thieves and brawlers, and order a Sarsaparilla without raising an eyebrow as to his masculinity and toughness.  Sarsaparilla was believed, like ginseng, to increase sexual potency and testosterone.  Rather than being a “soft drink", the exhausted and trail worn cowboy may have just been gearing up for a night of revelry.

However, the Sarsaparilla beverage popular in early America often contained no Sarsaparilla at all!  This herb, that was used traditionally for a wide variety of ailments originates in Central America and parts of Mexico.  So popular and legendary were its powers, that it was often counterfeited and other herbs that had similar qualities native to the Americas substituted for it.  The popular Sarsaparilla drink was generally made from birch oil and Sassafras in its commercial form.  Prior to that, the herbs used medicinally in place of Sarsaparilla and often labeled Sarsaparilla in trade, were members of our native Aralia and Smilax families - essentially, spikenard and briars.

True Sarsaparilla is Smilax ornata, with Smilax aspera being most similar.  Smilax is the briar family.  Although, Sarsaparilla is believed to be the most potent member of this family, most (if not all) Smilax can be used similarly - this includes the common green briar, cat briar and carrion  flower, etc., that most gardeners and landscaper in America battle each year as weeds.  Yes, that annoying briar that scratches your leg as you walk through the woods and grows into your ornamental bushes, is actually an apoptogenic type herbal medicine.  If it accomplishes anything similar to the legendary properties of Sarsaparilla, it is a valuable herb, indeed.  The Aralias are also adaptogens, and are thorny like briars, but usually grow as shrubs instead of vines.  The Araila family is closely related to Ginseng, yet several of its members are called Sarsaparilla, such as Wild Sarsaparilla and Bristly Sarsaparilla.

The confusion caused by any discussion of Sarsaparilla is that several plants with similar properties have traditionally been called and marketed as Sarsaparilla, while true Sarsaparilla was probably the least used of the herbs known by its name.  This can lead one down many rabbit holes that end in frustration.  Meanwhile, this renders much of the literature of the 1900s in which researchers spend time debunking many of the claims about Sarsaparilla, useless - simply put, we don’t know if they are investigating the same herb about which the original claim was made!  One may suppose that this gives legitimacy to such legislation as The Pure Foods and Drugs Act.  But frankly, many counterfeit herbs are still on the market (which is a major reason that I encourage people to grow their own herbs and identify them in the wild).  Moreover, the actual result of much of this confused research has been to cause people to doubt that Sarsaparilla has any value as a medicinal herb.  In truth, it is a very useful herb and so are the herbs once substituted for it.

Let’s take a look at the modern use of true Sarsaparilla and a few of the herbs that were used in its place as detailed currently by Plants for A Future:

Medicinal use of Sarsaparilla: The root is alterative, demulcent, depurative, diaphoretic, diuretic, stimulant and tonic. This is one of the best depurative medicines and is used as a springtime tonic and general body cleanser, usually with woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). The root has all the medicinal virtues of the widely used tropical herb sarsaparilla, though to a lesser degree. It is often used as an adulterant to that plant. The ripe fruits are squeezed and applied to the skin in the treatment of scabies.

Medicinal use of Greenbriar: The root is diuretic. It is used in the treatment of dropsy and urinary complaints. A tea made from the roots is used to help the expelling of afterbirth. Reports that the roots contain the hormone testosterone have not been confirmed, they might contain steroid precursors, however. The stem prickles have been rubbed on the skin as a counter-irritant to relieve localised pains, muscle cramps and twitching. A tea made from the leaves and stems has been used as a general tonic and also in the treatment of rheumatism and stomach problems. The wilted leaves are applied as a poultice to boils.

Medicinal use of Cat Greenbrier: The stem prickles have been rubbed on the skin as a counter-irritant to relieve localised pains, muscle cramps and twitching. A tea made from the leaves and stems has been used in the treatment of rheumatism and stomach problems. The wilted leaves are applied as a poultice to boils. A tea made from the roots is used to help the expelling of afterbirth. Reports that the roots contain the hormone testosterone have not been confirmed, they might contain steroid precursors, however.

Medicinal use of Carrion Flower: Eating the fruit is said to be effective in treating hoarseness. The parched and powdered leaves have been used as a dressing on burns. The wilted leaves have been used as a dressing on boils. The root is analgesic. A decoction has been used in the treatment of back pains, stomach complaints, lung disorders and kidney problems.

Yet, The Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine simply lists Sarsaparilla as “Smilax Species”.  Of the Aralias called Sarsaparilla, Plants for A Future states:

Medicinal use of Bristly Sarsaparilla: A tea made from the leaves is diaphoretic. The root is alterative and tonic. An infusion of the root has been used in the treatment of heart diseases. The bark, and especially the root bark, is diuretic and tonic. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh root. It has alterative, diaphoretic and diuretic properties and is considered to be a good treatment for dropsy.

Medicinal use of Wild Sarsaparilla: Wild sarsaparilla is a sweet pungent tonic herb that acts as an alterative. It had a wide range of traditional uses amongst the North American Indians and was at one time widely used as a substitute for the tropical medicinal herb sarsaparilla. The root is alterative, diaphoretic, diuretic, pectoral and stimulant. The herb encourages sweating, is stimulating and detoxifying and so is used internally in the treatment of pulmonary diseases, asthma, rheumatism, stomach aches etc. Externally it is used as a poultice in treating rheumatism, sores, burns, itchy skin, ulcers and skin problems such as eczema. The root is collected in late summer and the autumn and dried for later use. A drink made from the pulverised roots is used as a cough treatment. A poultice made from the roots and/or the fruit is applied to sores, burns, itchy skin, ulcers, swellings etc. A homeopathic remedy made from the roots is important in the treatment of cystitis.

Those description make the plants seem rather different, yet they are all adaptogens. My class notes from Michael Moore’s  South West School of Botanical Medicine read:

Aralia. Includes "Devil's Walking Stick". "American sarsaparilla"... not true sarsaparilla, but relative of spikenard - looks like ginseng.  All aralias are adaptogens. Used as alterative to build up weak people. Stimulate diminished stress between brain, hypothalamus, limbic system and pituitary. Minimizes limbic system stress. Not as strong as ginseng or dong quai, but good long term. Basically, it quiets non-specific stress so that the body doesn't react. Helps modulate blood sugar spikes…. adrenaline spikes blood sugar, but insulin as well. Adaptogens can lessen/mellow the adrenalin response somewhat. Aralia Californica berries elevate mood and stimulate GI tract, also good for respiratory stress.

"Bristly Sarsaparilla" or "Wild Elder". Aralia Hispida. This is another one that grows around here - he even mentions that it grows in NC specifically. Hispida means spiny.

Discussion on how folks have adapted in various climates as humanity populated the globe... adaptations to sunlight, diet, etc. Why any one diet or medical school of thought or discipline does not work for everyone. The human adapted due to stress. Ancient man faced many dangers. Modern man faces fewer physical dangers, but has same stress responses. Adaptogens cushion the stress response physically.

So, we have ascertained that Sarsparilla is a Smilax, that along with other smilax, are similar to Aralias, which include better known adaptogens such as ginseng, spikenard and oplopanax.  Between the Smilax and Aralia families, there are at least a couple of dozen herbs that share adaptogenic properties and have their own, individual medicinal specifics.  It is no wonder they were used interchangeably in folk use, but are hit and miss in clinical research.

By the 1600s, Sarsaparilla was a popular herb in England.  Culpepper tells us:

These are all plants of Mars; of an healing quality howsoever used. Dioscorides says, that both leaves and berries, drank before or after any deadly poison, are an excellent antidote. It is also said, that if some of the juice of the berries be given to a new-born child, it shall never behurt by poison. It is good against all sorts of venomous things. Twelve or sixteen of the berries, beaten to powder, and given in wine, procure urine when it is stopped. The distilled waters, when drank, have the same effect, cleanses the reins and assuages inward inflammations. If the eyes be washed therewith, it heals them thoroughly. The true Sasparilla is held generally not to heat, but rather to dry the humours; yet it is easily perceived, that it does not only dry them but wastes them away by a secret property, chiefly that of sweating, which it greatly promotes. It is used in many kinds of diseases, particularly in cold fluxes from the head and brain, rheums, and catarchs, and cold griefs of the stomach, as it expels wins very powerfully. It helps not only the French disease but all manner of aches in the sinews or joints, all running sores in the legs, all phlegmatic swellings, tetters or ring-worms, and all manner of spots and foulness of the skin.

It is reckoned a great sweetner of the blood, and has been found of considerable service in venereal cases. Infants who have received infection from their nurses, though covered with pustules and ulcers, may be cured by the use of this root without the help of mercurials; and the best way of administering it to them is to mix the powdered root with their food.

Culpepper mentions that Dioscorides wrote of the uses for Sarsaparilla but, of course, he was not writing of the Native American herb, but of the varieties of smilax known to ancient Greek herbalists.  The European “Sarsaparilla” is smilax aspera.  Dioscorides wrote a great deal on smilax, but knew nothing of aralia. It is believed that true Sarsaparilla was introduced to Europe from Honduras, by the Spanish around 1536.

Maude Grieve tried to straighten out all the confusion over Sarsaparilla in 1930 or so:

Sarsaparilla, American

Botanical: Aralia nudicaulis

Medicinal Action and Uses---Alterative, pectoral, diaphoretic, sudorific. Used as a substitute for Smilax Sarsaparilla is useful in pulmonary diseases and externally as a wash for indolent ulcers and shingles. It is said to be used by the Crees under the name of Rabbit Root for syphilis and as an application to recent wounds. It contains resin, oil, tannin, albumen, an acid, mucilage and cellulose.

Sarsaparilla, Jamaica

Botanical: Smilax ornata

Jamaica Sarsaparilla was introduced in the middle of the sixteenth century as a remedy for syphilis, and later came to be used for other chronic diseases, specially rheumatism. It is a mild gastric irritant due to its saponin content. The smoke of Sarsaparilla was recommended for asthma. It is also very useful as a tonic, alterative, diaphoretic and diuretic. Its active principle is a crystalline body, Parillin or Smilacin.

Medicinal Action and Uses---Alterative, tonic. Used in chronic skin diseases, rheumatism, passive dropsy.

Sarsaparilla, Indian

Botanical: Hemidesmus Indica

This plant has long been used in India as an antisyphilitic in place of Sarsaparilla, but was not introduced into England till 1831. The root is long, tortuous, rigid, cylindrical, little branched, consisting of aligneous centre, a brownish corky bark, furrowed and with annular cracks, odour aromatic, probably due to Coumarin and not unlike Sassafras or new-mown hay, with a bitter, sweetish, feeble aromatic taste. One side of the root is sometimes separated from the cork and raised above the cortex and transversely fissured, showing numerous laticiferous cells in the cortex.

Medicinal Action and Uses---Alterative, tonic and diuretic. Useful for rheumatism, scrofula, skin diseases and thrush; it is used as an infusion, but not as a decoction as boiling dissipates its active volatile principle. Two OZ. of the root are infused in 1 pint of boiling water and left standing for 1 hour then strained off and drunk in 24 hours.

It has been successfully used in the cure of venereal disease, proving efficacious where American Sarsaparilla has failed. Native doctors utilize it in nephritic complaints and for sore mouths of children.

Other Species---

Smilax Medica has an angular stem armedwith straight prickles at joints, and a few hooked ones at intervals; paper-like leaves, bright green both sides, smooth, cordate, auriculate, shortly acuminate, five-nerved prominent veins underneath and otherwise variable in form. Mid-rib and petioles, when old, have straight, subulate prickles, peduncles three lines to 1 inch; umbels twelve flowers; pedicle three lines long. Found growing in Papantla, Inspan, etc. Said to be similar to the Mexican or Vera Cruz Sarsapa of commerce, which may be derived from this species.

SARSAPARILLA MEXICAN (Synonym. Vera Cruz Sarsaparilla), as found in commerce, has a caudex with a number of long radicles which are smaller and have a thinner bark than the Honduras variety, contain little starch and have square endodermal cells with thickened walls, and more or less oval lumen. The taste is acrid and the plant contains the medical properties of other Sarsaparillas.

Further compounding the confusion over these herbs is that the term “adaptogen” was virtually unknown until recent decades.  The Soviet government put a strong emphasis on research into Russian Herbal Medicine.  It was only through their promotion of Siberian Ginseng that the concept of herbs that help one adapt to environmental, immune and emotional stress came to be understood.  It was somewhat of an “aha” moment for many… “Oh, that is why ginseng can increase recovery and performance for athletes and help recovery in the sick, restore potency in a stressed and exhausted man and improve immunity!”  As the effects of adaptogens are specific to the condition of the individual, such herbs yield only confusion in clinical trials.  So, what herbalist and folk medicine observed through empirical evidence, was finally somewhat accepted by some scientists, at least.

In the 1980’s into the early 90s, Sarsaparilla had a brief surge of popularity among weight lifters and other athletes, who believed it could increase testosterone.  I can’t guarantee it will put hair on your chest but… well, I reckon it is high time I be mosey’n along to shrink an old fashioned root beer… and no, I do not mean a corn syrup laden, artificially flavored soft drink. Remember pilgrim, to quote the great John Wayne, “Life is tough; its tougher when you are stupid.”  Use the healthful herbs and avoid the mass marketed garbage that is causing epidemics of obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/

His weekly podcast may be heard at: www.spreaker.com/show/southern-appalachian-herbs

He offers free, weekly herb classes: https://rumble.com/c/c-618325

His New Book is Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People

You can read about and purchase Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People here: southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/10/herbal-medicine-for-preppers.html

Also available on Amazon: Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People: Carroll, Judson: 9798491252923: Amazon.com: Books

His other works include:

Look Up: The Medicinal Trees of the American South, An Herbalist's Guide: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/06/paypal-safer-easier-way-to-pay-online.html

The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/05/announcing-new-book-herbs-and-weeds-of.html


The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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