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Smilax spp. [Smilax regelii. Smilax ornata. Smilax medica. Jamaican sarsaparilla. Honduran sarsaparilla.] N.O. Smilacaceae [Liliaceae].
CLASSIFICATION The four genera and about 375 species of the Smilacaceae are mainly tropical and subtropical climbing shrubs; a few species occur in temperate zones. The vast majority of the family is in a single genus, Smilax, which has 350 species of woody climbers of the tropics and subtropics of both hemispheres. The other genera are Heterosmilax [15 species], Pseudosmilax [2 species], and Rhipogonum [7 species]. Smilax species are usually armed with spines. The taxonomic classification is complex: some taxonomists recognize two genera, others four; some classify the members of the Smilacaceae in the closely allied Liliaceae, although they generally are considered as a separate family because of differences in the leaf characters and in having male and female flowers on separate plants.
SMILAX Smilax spp. are woody climbers growing up to 50 m in length and fitted with, generally, prickly aerial stems arising from a tuberous rhizome. The name sarsaparilla refers to this thorny appearance, being derived from the Spanish zarza, a bramble, parra, a vine, and illa, small. The leathery, three-nerved leaves display net-like venation between the main veins, which is atypical for monocotyledons [palms, grasses, lilies, etc.] and thus a peculiar feature of the Smilacaceae. The leaves are opposite or alternate, and the leaf sheaths may develop into tendrils. Tendrils and the prickly hooks on the stem assist in the climbing habit. The flowers are usually unisexual and arranged in axillary racemes, spikes or umbels. The fruit is a berry containing one to three seeds with a hard endosperm. – VERMEULEN Frans,
SPECIES Rather than referring to one particular species, sarsaparilla is the collective name for a group of medicinal plants from the genus Smilax. Through the centuries various species have been labelled officinalis, indicating their medicinal use. According to the American Botanical Council the following species have been official: Honduran sarsaparilla [the species named Smilax sarsaparilla by Linnaeus] from 1820 to 1842, Smilax officinalis from 1842 to 1942, Smilax medica [Mexican sarsaparilla] from 1882 to 1942, Smilax ornata [Jamaican sarsaparilla] from 1905 to 1942, Smilax spp. [Ecuadorian sarsaparilla] from 1942 to 1959, Smilax regelii as well as Smilax aristolochiaefolia from 1942 to present, and Smilax febrifuga from 1960 to present. These species originate from Central and South America. Species such as Smilax aspera [Portuguese sarsaparilla], Smilax prolifera [Italian sarsaparilla], S. excelsa [Spanish sarsaparilla], Smilax rotundifolia [Syrian sarsaparilla], American sarsaparilla [the USA harbour 12 Smilax species], Chinese sarsaparilla [Smilax china, imported into Europe in the 17th century under the name ‘China root’], have also been called ‘sarsaparilla’ but do not have an official status. Again other species serve as substitutes: the leaves of Smilax glyciphylla, an Australian species, have been used medicinally and as a substitute for South American sarsaparillas in soft drinks; the Chinese use Smilax glabra to treat rheumatism, syphilis, urinary tract infections, and mercury poisoning; a New Zealand species of the allied genus Rhipogonum, R. scandens or Supplejack, is sometimes used as a substitute for sarsaparilla. Species belonging to entirely different plant families were or still are used as substitutes or for the purpose of adulteration. Hahnemann fulminated against the latter practice in the introduction to his Sarsaparilla proving. Seizing the opportunity to lash out at the doctrine of signatures he wrote: “They [the teachers of materia medica] reasoned thus: because Carex arenaria [a species of sedge growing in sandy places and known in Hahnemann’s time as ‘German sarsaparilla’] is indigenous and has a stronger taste [which, however, differs toto caelo from that of sarsaparilla] it ought to have the preference, for it must possess the same powers, as is evident from its similar long thin shape. Consequently, the similar form of the two roots proves that their powers must be identical! An excellent, inference, altogether worthy of the ordinary materia medica!” Sarsaparilla root was introduced from the New World into European [folk] medicine in the early 1600s by Spanish traders. Sarsaparilla soon found a ready market throughout Europe for treatment of syphilis and a variety of complaints that were considered to yield to the action of ‘blood purification’. With the sharply increasing incidence of syphilis the demand for the root grew to the extent that hundreds of thousands of pounds of sarsaparilla were sold per year in the 1700s and 1800s. These financial successes encouraged the adulteration of sarsaparilla on the commercial market. The most common adulterant, still in use today, is ‘Hemidesmus indicus’, the Indian sarsaparilla [Periploca indica, a member of the Asclepiadaceae or Milkweed family]. In North America the strongly aromatic roots of the wild sarsaparilla [Aralia nudicaulis] and false or bristly sarsaparilla [Aralia hispida] are sometimes substituted for true sarsaparilla.
HISTORY “Before 1530, when sarsaparilla was introduced into European trade from New Spain [Mexico], several species were being used for medicine in their native lands. Smilax aspera was known and used by the ancients. Dioscorides and Pliny recommended the leaves of this plant against ‘deadly poisons, whether they be drunk before or after.’ … Sarsaparilla was mentioned by many early writers, who observed it in many parts of Southern Europe and North Africa. The young shoots were eaten, and in Roman times the mature vines were worn as garlands at festivals of Bacchus, by the common people. This practice was generally ‘looked upon as ill omened, and consequently banished from all sacred rites – receiving this mournful character from the maiden Smilax, who upon her love being slighted by the young Crocus, was transformed into this shrub [Pliny 16:63].’ Gerard, in his ‘Great Herbal’, mentions that the Honduran and Peruvian sarsaparilla ‘are a remedy against long continual pain of the joints and head, and against the cold.’… According to Monardes, the Spanish botanist, Mexican sarsaparilla was introduced into Europe medicine about 1536 at Seville. Other species soon followed from Guatemala and Honduras. They were highly regarded as a remedy for syphilis, which was also imported from the New World in the late 1400s, and for rheumatism. From Spain, the herb found its way into the pharmacists shops all over Europe and England. Few plants have had the rise and fall in popularity that sarsaparilla has had. When it was introduced it was considered remarkably effective for diverse chronic diseases, and many doctors of the time wrote about its benefits. Generally considered an alterative tonic, blood purifier, diuretic and diaphoretic, it was given alone or in combination with other herbs, as well as with mercury for long-standing venereal disease. Pereira, a leading physician in London in the mid 19th century, felt that sarsaparilla works when ‘the malady is of long continuance, and the constitution is enfeebled and emaciated, either by repeated attacks of the disease, or by the use of mercury,’ and that it is ‘the great restorer of appetite, flesh, colour, strength and vigour.’ Pereira gives obstinate skin disease, such as chronic abscesses as a further indication. He concludes that ‘the great advantage of sarsaparilla over many other alteratives and tonics, is, that although it may fail in doing good, it never does any harm beyond that of now and then causing slight disorder of stomach.’ Although sarsaparilla found favour with many physicians, the same charges that its chief benefit was to make money for its distributors were made then, as today. That it was profitable and popular can be seen by the 176,854 pound imported into England alone during 1831. Perhaps because of inferior quality roots, adulteration and substitution, sarsaparilla fell completely out of favour in the late 18th century, but it was strongly promoted again about 1750 by Fordyce and others, as a remedy for syphilis. Its renewed popularity continued until the time of Cullen, the famous English doctor, about 1800. Cullen considered it completely inert, and was quite influential in his day. Sarsaparilla was again in favour around 1850, when it was official in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia. It was recommended by Wood, the co-author of the U.S. Dispensatory, for ‘the treatment of secondary syphilis.’ It continued to be official until 1950. During the turn of the century, highly promoted patent remedies of dubious efficacy, considered ‘quack’ remedies by regular doctors, were in their heyday. Foremost among these were various sarsaparilla remedies, notably Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, which ‘made the weak strong’. This preparation sold hundreds of thousands of bottles all over the world, with indications for weakness and disease in nearly any organ of the body. ‘Disorders of the liver, stomach and kidneys, as well as tuberculosis, tumours, rheumatism, female weakness, sterility, pimples and syphilis, could be cured by just one remedy, Ayer’s Sarsaparilla.’ In the USA, several species of Smilax have been widely used as a substitute for sarsaparilla, and for other medicinal and food purposes. The principle species used was S. pseudo-china, being the one ‘generally preferred in medicine as an alterative.’ It also formed the basis of many diet drinks among the ‘unlicensed faculty’. From the tubers, with maize, sassafras and molasses ‘the negroes of Carolina manufacture a very pleasant beer.’ It was also used to fatten hogs in South Carolina. A famous eclectic physician, John King, thought S. Smallii [S. lanceolata] more effective in syphilis than any of the commercial species.”1 Nicolas Monardes [c. 1493-1588] played a key role in the introduction and promotion of New World drugs in Europe, which included coca, jalap, tobacco, sarsaparilla and sassafras [the latter two for blood-cleansing]. Because the virtues of New World plants were uncertain, he concentrated on the distinguishing marks of the new plants and described how they were used by the American Indians. It has been suggested that his sarsaparilla cure for syphilis fell out of favour because it required some other aspects to be effective, such as confinement to a warm room for 30 days [to induce sweating], followed by forty days of abstinence from both wine and sexual intercourse.
CONSTITUENTS Steroidal saponins [sarsaponin, smilacin, pollinastanin, sitosterol], which have a close structural relationship with steroid hormones, cardioactive glycosides and vitamin D. Sarsaponin yields sarsapogenin on hydrolysis; sarpogenin is related to steroids such as progesterone and is used in their synthesis. Other constituents include resins, volatile oil, oxalic acid, a mixture of fatty acids [palmitic, stearic, oleic, and linoleic], a polysaccharide, and traces of silicon, aluminium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and chromium. In addition, the roots contain significant amounts of cobalt and above-average amounts of selenium, tin, and zinc. “The effects of sarsaparilla on inflammatory conditions,” says Mills, “suggest that the steroidal nature of its saponins may be interacting with steroidal receptors in the body, or may even act as in vivo precursors to the steroidal hormones.” The steroidal compounds may explain sarsaparilla’s reputation as a male rejuvenating tonic. Currently, commercial products containing sarsaparilla have their major market in the fitness and body building business, claiming them to contain ‘natural and active’ anabolic steroids.
MEDICINE The employment of Smilax species in traditional folk medicine worldwide is remarkably coherent. In many different cultures they have been used for the same conditions, namely gout, arthritis, fevers, digestive disorders, skin disease, and venereal disease. The Amazonian Makuna Indians use the rhizome [of S. aequatorialis] as a remedy for re-establishing virility in men and to treat menopausal troubles in women. In Malaysia the rhizomes of S. calophylla and S. myosotiflora are used in making aphrodisiacs as well as to treat gonorrhoea and syphilis. An Indian recipe for impotency calls for 50 gr. of S. perfoliata root, in powdered form, to be taken once a day with cow’s milk for up to four months. Smilax species are used in North and Central America to treat infertility. In Venezuela S. officinalis is used against leprosy and venereal diseases. The roots of S. aristolochiaefolia make a decoction in Mexico for syphilis, but also for eczema, bruises, and leprosy. The rhizome of S. angolensis is in West Africa used as a remedy for venereal diseases and for rheumatism. Syphilis and gonorrhoea are treated in Tanzania and South Africa with S. kraussiana; in Mauritius S. anceps is used for syphilis. The Chinese Materia Medica recommends S. glabra and S. china for rheumatism, gout, syphilis, ulcers, boils, abscesses, urinary tract infections, and psoriasis. A decoction of the rhizomes and roots of S. china is used in the Philippines as a ‘blood-cleanser’ in cases of herpes, syphilis and similar affections. The rhizome of S. corbularia is used in Thailand to treat venereal diseases. Himalayan uses of S. zeylanica include rheumatism and dysentery. The North American Iroquois put S. herbacea in their sweat baths for rheumatism and used the powdered roots in a compound for “loss of senses during menses”. The Houma Indians made a decoction of the roots of S. laurifolia for urinary difficulties. The root of S. moranensis is taken in Mexico for the kidneys. For Amazonian Indians the leaves of S. aequatorialis have ‘heart-strengthening’ properties when taken daily as a tea over a period of three weeks. The leaves of S. vitiensis are pounded and soaked in water in Fiji and the liquid drunk as a tonic for weakness or debility. With its reputation as a blood purifier, sarsaparilla was registered as an official herb in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a syphilis treatment from 1820 to 1910. The effectiveness of smilax in the treatment of skin disorders, such as the acne of adolescence caused by raging androgens, has received some experimental support. An Australian pharmacy chain makes a ‘Sarsaparilla compound’ which is used as an internal ‘tonic’ for teenage acne. 3,4
OTHER USES Sarsaparilla has been extensively used in the food industry as a flavour component and foaming agent in root beer, frozen diary desserts, candy and baked goods. Root beer was created in the mid-1800s by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires. It was a low-alcohol, naturally effervescent beverage made by fermenting a blend of sugar and yeast with various roots, herbs and barks such as sarsaparilla, sassafras, wild cherry, wintergreen and ginger. Commercial root beer today is completely non-alcoholic and generally contains sugar, caramel colouring, carbonated water, and a combination of artificial and natural flavourings. Sarsaparilla is now also used to flavour and mask the taste of medicines.
EFFECTS “The quality of the drug is important, if one is to expect clinical activity. The best sarsaparilla imparts a slightly nauseating, acrid taste to the mouth. The more acrid the drug, the better, even to the point of inducing a burning sensation in the throat. Presumably, this response is stimulated by the presence of saponins, which are known to be irritating to the mucous membranes. It is the author’s experience that Jamaican sarsaparilla is only mildly acrid, Mexican and Honduran, more so. When the drug is old, much activity has been probably lost. Uneven quality may be one reason for the swings of popularity the drug has experienced. Sarsaparilla was not considered by early practitioners to be fast-acting. Many practitioners who have written about its action have stated that its use must be persisted in. This can be seen by the following statement from Wood’s Therapeutics . ‘The curative effect of sarsaparilla is very slow, because the alterative change of tissue upon which its efficacy probably depends, is also slow; and this very slowness may constitute one of its real merits; as it seems difficult seriously to abuse a remedy of such feeble physiological action. But gradually, under its use, the appetite often increases, the general nutrition improves, the secretions assume their normal state… A new and healthy tissue has taken the place of the old and diseased.'”5
ENDOTOXINS “Evidence seems to support sarsaparilla as an endotoxin binder. Endotoxins are cell wall constituents of bacteria that are absorbed from the gut. Normally, the liver filters out these and other gut-derived compounds before they reach the general circulation. If the amount of endotoxin absorbed is excessive or if the liver is not functioning adequately, the liver can become overwhelmed, and endotoxins will spill into the blood. If endotoxins are allowed to circulate, activation of the alternate complement system occurs. This system plays a critical role in aggravating inflammatory processes, and activation of complement is responsible for much of the inflammation and cell damage that occurs in many diseases, including gout, arthritis, and psoriasis. For example, individuals with psoriasis have been shown to have high levels of circulating endotoxins. Binding of endotoxin in the gut is associated with clinical improvement in these individuals. In a controlled study of ninety-two patients, an endotoxin-binding saponin [sarsaponin] from sarsaparilla greatly improved the psoriasis in 62% of the patients and resulted in complete clearance in 18%. In further support of sarsaparilla’s effects as a binder of endotoxin is its historical use in the treatment of fever, as absorbed endotoxins produce fever. Sarsaparilla also exhibits some antibiotic activity, but this is probably secondary to its endotoxin-binding action. Despite sarsaparilla’s long historical use, there is little scientific information about the plant. From the limited information available it appears that sarsaparilla’s medicinal effects as it binds bacterial endotoxins in the gut, rendering them unabsorbable. This greatly reduces stress on the liver and other organs and is probably responsible for sarsaparilla’s historical use as a tonic and blood purifier. This ability to bind endotoxins is also the probable reason why sarsaparilla is reported to be effective in many cases of psoriasis, gout, and arthritis.”6
PROVINGS ••  Hahnemann – 7 provers; method: unknown.
••  Croker – self-experimentation, c. 1871; method: repeated doses of tincture.
••  Theobold – experiments on self and a 12-year old girl; method: tincture, single dose or repeated and increasing doses over 6 days.
 Hobbs, Sarsaparilla, A Literature Review; HerbalGram 17, Summer 1988 [publ. American Botanical Council].  Mills, The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.  Riley, Maori Healing and Herbal.  Taylor, Herbal Secrets of the Rainforest.  Hobbs, ibid.  Murray, The Healing Power of Herbs.
Genito-urinary system. Skin. * RIGHT SIDE.
Worse: At close of micturition. Spring. Cold wet; damp weather. Mercury. Night. Suppressed gonorrhoea. Yawning. During menses.
Better: Uncovering neck or chest. Standing.
M Very bad mood – loss of temper.
Disgusted with everything; no pleasure in anything.
Extremely irritable, even the fly on the wall irritates him.
Readily insulted by a word.
Cannot forget vexatious matters. [Hahnemann]
M Sadness from pain.
M Delusion of being friendless.
Reserved; doesn’t make friends easily; no close friends.
Quiet; like to be by themselves and to do things on their own.
Difficult to share things.
Or: Feels left out and neglected.
[These basic syphilitic traits are in keeping with the essence of Monardes’s sarsaparilla therapy for syphilis: confinement and abstinence [from pleasure] for 10 weeks altogether.]
Very sensitive to cold.
G Faintness during menses.
G < NIGHT. G < Getting WET. G Tendency to gravel and itching eruptions. G Itching scaly spots, become crusty. < In spring. G Skin irritation [raw on scratching and < washing]. < Any hot stimulating food, such as hot soup. [Borland] P Headache. Beginning at back of head, coming forward and settling at root of nose. And Swelling of nose. [Farrington] Headache preceded or accompanied by flickering before the eyes. • “Cannot speak [during headache], as every word resounds in the head.” [Hahnemann] P Itching eruption on forehead during menses. P Obstinate constipation. And Violent urging to urinate. P PAINFUL URINATION, esp. LAST drops. < Before menses. > Standing.
[One of the main remedies for cystitis.]
Extreme pain in back and lower abdomen, extending down thighs.
And Faintness, [cold] sweat, vomiting and diarrhoea and “very acute mammary sensitiveness, often one-sided [left more than right].” [Borland]
P Retracted or cracked nipples.
• “Sarsaparilla has many symptoms relative to the female breasts, and scirrhus of the breast has been cured with it. The nipples are soft, unexcitable; they are retracted and cannot be made to come out. Retraction of the nipples is a suspicious sign even when there is no appearance of tumour; and Sarsaparilla should be helpful in patients of cancerous history when this condition is present. This shrivelling of the nipples is part of the shrivelling, withering, wrinkling, and hanging in folds which characterises the skin generally.” [Clarke]
P Deep, bleeding CRACKS in hands, esp. in fingers [< sides]. P Very sore, gouty nodes. Rheumatic pains. < At night; damp weather. Rubrics Mind Anger about former vexations . Aversion to everything . Delusions, body is brittle , he is friendless . Doubtful of recovery during menopause [1/1]. Dwells on old grievances . Morose, with inclination to work [1/1]. Starting in evening on going to sleep . Feels unfortunate . 1 Vertigo With nausea, when looking long at one object [1/1]. Head Pain, from looking fixedly at anything , > looking fixedly at anything . Pulsating, vertex, while walking . Sensitiveness to brushing of hair .
Colours, paper looks red . Flickering, before headache , at beginning of headache [2/1], during headache . Foggy after sitting long [1/1]. Lost, at beginning of headache .
Noises, every word reverberates in the head, during headache [1*].
Nausea, after exertion of vision . Pain, burning, after bread [1/1]. Vomiting, bitter, during menses [2/1]; sour, during headache .
Urging, frequent, at climacteric , before menses , after menses . Urination, dribbling while sitting, urine passes freely when standing [2/1].
Atrophy of nipples [1; Iod.]. Numbness of nipples [1/1].
Coldness, shivering extending up the back after urinating [2/1].
Itching, hands, > motion [1/1]. Sore, bruised pain in fingertips .
Fights with ghosts . Spiders .
Cold, in dysmenorrhoea , during menses .
Eruptions, boils, stinging when touched , from becoming cold , before menses , rash in cold air , after vaccination .
* Repertory addition [Hahnemann].
1 This symptom comes from Hahnemann, who produced the same symptom when proving China and Ipecacuanha.
Aversion: : Cooked food.
Desire: : Cold drinks; fruit, fresh and juicy; juicy things; refreshing things.
Worse: : Bread. : Alcohol; cold drinks; dry food; hot food; warm food.
Better: : Cold food.