Sarsaparilla: A Bit of Botany
a little botanical information on sarsaparilla

indian sarsaparilla
Hemidesmus indicus, otherwise known as Indian sarsaparilla, is a species of plant in the Apocynaceae family.

This sometimes prostrate and sometimes semi-erect shrub is slender, twining, and laticiferous. Its aromatic roots are woody and produce the stem which is numerous, slender, terete, and thickened at the nodes.

The plant's leaves are opposite, short-petioled, and very variable, elliptic-oblong to linear-lanceolate. Outside the flowers are greenish, and inside are purplish, they are crowded in sub-sessile axillary cymes. The root is a substitute for Smilax spp. of sarsaparilla.

mexican sarsaparilla
Smilax medica, otherwise known as Mexican sarsaparilla, is a species of plant in the Smilacaceae family.

Its angular stem is armed at its joints with straight prickles, and a few hooked ones at intervals.

The paper-like leaves of mexican sarsaparilla are bright green on both sides, smooth, shortly acuminate, cordate, auriculate, five-nerved prominent veins underneath and otherwise variable in form. When aged, mid-rib and petioles have straight, subulate prickles, peduncles three lines to an inch. The umbels have twelve flowers with the pedicle three lines long.

common names & nomenclature
Sarsaparilla is from the late 16th century Spanish zarzaparilla, from zarza meaning "bramble" + a diminutive of parra meaning "vine."

Also known as:
Hemidesmus indicus: false sarsaparilla

Smilex medica: catbriers, greenbriers, prickly-ivys, Smilax aristolochiifolia

Sarsaparilla, the plant that won the Wild West
Sarsaparilla: Where in the World
habitat and range for sarsaparilla

Hemidesmus indicus occurs over the greater part of India, from the upper Gangetic plain eastwards to Assam and in some places in central, western and South India.

Smilax medica is native throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world, Mexico and other regions.

Sarsaparilla: Cultivation & Harvesting
considerations for growing and cultivating sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla is common in partly shaded wooded areas because it uses its tendrils to climb up the trees. It is widely found in temperate, moist and warm areas.

Grows well in a rich, well-drained soil.

If gathered in the fall, cold-stratify seeds for 90 to 150 days. Do this by placing them between layers of damp paper towels in a lidded plastic container and storing it in an unheated garage or in the refrigerator. The winter cold is necessary for seed germination. Check towels and renew moisture once a month if needed. Plant into individual pots once large enough to handle. Plant out in the garden the next spring or summer.

Harvest roots in the fall when the flavor is most concentrated. Dry for later use.

Store dried sarsaparilla roots, root pieces, or sarsaparilla root powder in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Sarsaparilla: The Rest of the Story
sarsaparilla history, folklore, literature & more

The ancient Greeks and Romans considered European sarsaparilla an antidote to poisons. But the herb was not popular in herbal healing until the 16th century, when Spanish explorers discovered the Caribbean species, a prickly "zarza" vine "parra" that was small "illa"). That description became our word sarsaparilla. Caribbean and North American Indians used the herb to treat skin conditions, urinary complaints, and as a tonic to keep one young and vigorous, both physically and sexually.

In 1494 an epidemic of unusually virulent syphilis swept Europe, killing thousands, rather like the AIDS epidemic today. Europeans considered the disease an import from the New World, and they looked to herbs from across the Atlantic to treat it. They focused on sarsaparilla.

The conquistadors began shipping Mexican sarsaparilla back to Spain around 1530, and by 1600 it was widely used throughout Europe as a strengthening tonic and treatment for syphilis. Sarsaparilla and syphilis have been entwined ever since.

Sarsaparilla enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. Seventeenth-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper called it the treatment of choice for "the French disease," the English name for syphilis. Echoing the ancients, he wrote: "If the juice of the berries be given to a new-born child, it shall never be hurt by poison." Culpeper also recommended sarsaparilla for eye problems, head colds, gas pains, pimples, and "all manner of aches in the sinews or joints."

By 1800, many physicians denounced sarsaparilla as completely ineffective against syphilis, but their words fell on deaf ears. Mid-19th-century trade records indicate Britain imported upwards of 150,000 pounds a year, much of it for treatment of syphilis.