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Herbal Monograph

Herb:   Sarsaparilla   (Smilax officinalis; Liliaceae)

Other Names:  many species incl. S. aristolochiaefolii, regelii, febrifuga.    (2)

Character/Energetics:   sweet, mildly spicy, neutral    (6)

Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected:    liver, stomach, kidneys   (6)  

Part used:   root (6); root and rhizome  (8)                                                                                                       

Identification & Harvesting:    Evergreen shrubs with climbing branches and stipular tendrils.  They have a short, gnarled, perennial, creeping or ascending rhizome with numerous long roots stretching over many meters.  The branched, thorny, nodular stem has the thickness of an arm and is yellow-green.  Leaves are in 2 rows;  alternate, simple, hardy, with 3 or 5 main ribs.  They turn into climbing tendrils above and break off at this point when they die.  Flowers are white to pale green, yellow or brown.  Usually grow in axillary cymes or racemes and contain 6 petals in 2 circles.  Fruit is a globular red blue or black berry with 1-6 seeds.  Found in many tropical and subtropical regions;  S. aspera is found only in the Mediterranean.    (2)

Roots and rhizome can be unearthed throughout the year.    (8)

Root is rusty brown, cylindrical, about 1/4-1/2 inch in diameter, with numerous slender rootlets, deeply furrowed longitudinally, the transverse section showing a brown, hard, non-mealy bark, and a porous central wood portion.  Tastes slightly acrid.  No odor.  The orange-brown Jamaica native with a starchy rind is sometimes preferred.  The so-called Brown Jamaica comes from Costa Rica.    (57)

Several South and Central American and Caribbean spp. of Smilax, a genus in the lily family.  They include Mexican s., S. medica or aristolochiaefolia, Honduran s., S. regelii, Ecuadoran s., S. febrifuga, Jamaican s., S. ornata, and other spp.  Most of the commercial supply is wildcrafted.    (61)

Active Constituents:    Steroid saponins .5-3%, chiefly sarsaparilloside, parillin, a breakdown product;  also desglucoparillin, desglucorhamnoparillin, aglycone sarsapogenin.    (2)

saponins, parillin, sarsaponin, glycosides, sitosterol stigmasterin, traces of essential oil, resin, sugar and fat   (6)

sapogenins, glycosides, essential oil, resin.  Shown to contain chemicals with properties that aid testosterone activity.    (8)

Newly discovered compounds, smilaxin A, B and C, in Asian smilax or S. sieboldii;  in animals, smilaxin B blocked pain signals in the spinal column from reaching the brain.  Its action was compared with opium;  a different mechanism, but a significant effect.  S. sieboldii is a candidate for development as a painkiller.    (61)

Actions:    Diuretic, diaphoretic.    (2)

alterative, diuretic, diaphoretic, tonic    (6)

…anti-rheumatic… a widely applicable alterative.    (8)

Alterative.    (57)

There is no credible recent research on its actions.  Earlier research showed it is diuretic, anti-inflammatory and anti-hepatic.    (61)

Conditions & Uses:    Used for skin diseases, psoriasis, rheumatic complaints, kidney diseases.    (2)

Sarsaparilla root is used to treat skin disorders, liver problems, rheumatism and hormone excesses. The species of this herb vary in different areas; many herbs with somewhat similar properties also have become known as sarsaparilla. A related species calLed China root (S. china) is commonly used in Chinese medicine as an alterative and diuretic for syphilis, gout, skin disorders and rheumatism. Generally the best quality sarsaparilla is the Jamaican. Honduran and Mexican are also very good. The roots with the deeper orange‑red color are considered to be of superior quality. Sarsaparilla is excellent for chronic hepatic disorders,

for venereal diseases Iike gonorrhea and syphilis, and for female leuchorrea, herpes and other skin disorders caused by blood impurities….It also is of some help for epilepsy and other nervous system disorders.    (6)

May be used to aid proper functioning of the body as a whole, and in the correction of such diffuse systemic problems as skin and rheumatic conditions.  Particularly useful in scaling skin conditions as psoriasis, esp. where there is irritation.  Can be part of a wider treatment for chronic rheumatism.    (8)

Introduced by the Spaniards in 1563 as a cure for syphilis.  It has been thoroughly tested since then, and found spurious.  However it contains active alterative principles, which cause it still to be held in high opinion as a general blood purifier.    (57)

Was used to treat syphilis and rheumatism;  often an ingredient in patent medicines promoted as blood purifiers, tonics and diuretics and a myriad of questionable applications.  Recently touted as a male sexual rejuvenator with claims implying it contains testosterone.  It does contain phytosterols but nothing close to testosterone, because the body cannot convert phytosterols to anabolic steroids or human hormones.  More likely to build profit margins than muscle tissue.  Also claimed effective in eczema and psoriasis.    (61)

Combinations:  Combines well with other alteratives and especially with yellow dock, sassafras, burdock, dandelion and red clover  SOURCE?

For psoriasis, combine with burdock, yellow dock and cleavers.    (8)

Chiefly given in conjunction with other remedies, such as sassafras, burdock, etc.    (57)

Precautions:    Occasional nausea or kidney irritation.  Overdose could lead to European cholera, arrhythmias, shock.    (2)

Occasional stomach irritation and temporary kidney problems.  Known to increase the absorption of digitalis (foxglove) and hasten elimination of other medications.    (61)

Tincturing Process:

Applications:    Because of its saponin content and pleasant flavor, it is used alone or with sassafras to make root beer.  A simple recipe is to brew a combination of sarsaparilla and sassafras in boiling water for 20 minutes,

about four ounces to a gallon. Strain and add a pound of honey or

to sweeten, and Iive baking or brewing yeast. Keep covered in a w~

place (about 68 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour or two untiI small

bles start to rise, showing that fermentation has begun. Decant int

bottles and tightly cap. Wait 2ff hours beEore drinkizig  (6)

Decoction — 1-2 tsp dried root in 1 c. water;  boil and simmer 10-15 min;  3 x daily.

Tincture — 1-2 ml, 3 x daily.    (8)


Dosage:  6‑15 gms. in decoction; tincture,  10‑30 drops    (6)

Powder dose 1/4-1 drachm.    (57)

Up to 2.1 g. capsules daily.  Steep 1/2-2 tsp powdered root in a cup of hot water for 10-15 min.  Tincture 15-30 drops up to 3 x daily.    (61)

General Notes:         



(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), p. 1145

(6) Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D., pg. 194-195

(8)  The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, p. 230

(57) Potter’s Cyclopaedia by R.C. Wren, F.L.S., p. 308

(61) 101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster, pgs. 178-79


PHOTO; Wikipedia 2