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Also known as Hemidesmus indicus (Indian), Smilax medica (Mexican), Smilax ornata (Jamaican), Sarsaparilla, and Beer Root.
Sarsaparilla is the root of several South and Central American and Caribbean species of Smilax, a genus in the lily family. Most of the commercial supply is harvested from the wild.
Sarsaparilla as an Herb for Medicinal Uses
The medicinal parts are the dried roots, the entire underground part and the tuberous swellings produced by the runners.
In Victorian era England, sarsaparilla was popular as a ‘spring tonic’, believed to help detoxify the body from poisons and toxins accumulated over the course of winter. When the root was first introduced in Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, it was marketed as a specific remedy for syphilis and leprosy, but over the years it took on more and more qualities of healing until some enthusiasts claimed it could cure everything short of a gunshot wound.
Mexican sarsaparilla was exported to Europe before 1530. In sixteenth-century Europe, sarsaparilla was used to treat syphilis and rheumatism. It was official treatment for syphilis in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia in 1850. Often an ingredient in patent medicines with extravagant claims in late nineteenth-century America, sarsaparilla products were promoted as blood purifiers, tonics, and diuretics, to induce sweating, and for a myriad of other questionable applications.
By 1911, Sarsaparilla had fallen into disuse and became thought of as nothing more than a beverage.
In the 1950s, scientists documented the antibiotic properties of sarsaparilla root preparations, pointing to its ability to attack microbial contamination in the bloodstream. Its diuretic and detoxification actions have been documented, as has its beneficial effects on both digestion and skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Folk medicine: Preparations of Sarsaparilla root are used for skin diseases, psoriasis, rheumatic complaints, kidney diseases, and as a diuretic and diaphoretic. Folk practitioners also used the sarsaparilla root for scrofula (a tuberculosis infection of the lymph nodes, esp. the neck).
Native American groups mixed sarsaparilla with other herbs to make cough remedies, treat fevers, and other ailments. In the nineteenth century, sarsaparilla was added to a variety of drinks not only because of its pleasant taste but also because people thought it purified the blood (Peirce 1999).
Homeopathic Uses: In homeopathy Smilax is used for itching skin rashes, rheumatism and inflammation of the urinary organs.
In recent years sarsaparilla has been touted as a male sexual rejuvenator with claims implying it contains testosterone. It has also been used as an anabolic steroid replacement in natural body-building formulas.
In Germany, although it has been traditionally used to treat skin diseases including psoriasis, as well as rheumatism and kidney ailments, products may not carry therapeutic claims because their effectiveness has not been demonstrated.
Culinary Uses of Sarsaparilla
Sarsaparilla extract is approved as a food flavoring ingredient in the United States.
According to German health authorities, sarsaparilla preparations have caused stomach irritation and temporary kidney problems. Sarsaparilla should not be taken by anyone on prescription medications. Not recommended for use while pregnant or while on blood thinning medications and its long term use is not recommended.
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