Sarsaparilla is a perennial, woody climbing vine with a prickly stem in the Smilacaceae family native to Central and South America that grows in the forest canopy and thrives in moist, well drained soils. It has pointed alternate ovate leaves with small dioecious yellow, green, or bronze flowers that grow in axillary umbels. It climbs with tendrils that grow in pairs on the petiole of each leaf. It’s roots, the part used medicinally and culinarily, are long, slender reddish rhizomes. The deeper hue of the root is thought to indicate higher medicinal qualities. It does best in shady areas with partial sun, as a forested area would offer.
Sarsaparilla’s saponin content has diuretic and diaphoretic actions on the system. Sarsaparilla also has the ability to bind to certain bacterially produced endotoxins and speed their elimination, making it a blood purifier. It is also an alterative, useful for liver problems, has anti-inflammatory actions, and can help reduce high blood pressure and reduce the risk of congestive heart failure. For PMS related water retention, sarsaparilla can provide much needed relief. It helps with the treatment of rheumatic joint pain and arthritis, and studies have also shown that use of sarsaparilla can also help with scaling skin conditions such as psoriasis and leprosy. It’s chemical constituents also promote testosterone activity, making it a useful herb for aging men or those with low testosterone to restore virility. Aryuvedically, Sarsaparilla is considered cooling and slightly sweet, used similarly as it is in western medicine for rheumatism, blood-cleansing actions, and expelling extra energy from the bowels. Externally, a compress is useful for painful, arthritic joints, and as a wash for genital sores. It’s used in Chinese medicine commonly as an alterative and diuretic to treat skin disorders, rheumatism, and gout.
Sarsaparilla was once widely used as a spring tonic by Caribbean and North American Natives, useful for preserving youth and sexual vigor. It was introduced to Europe as a cure for syphilis, as well as to ease digestion and gout, fend off colds and fevers, and for rheumatic joint pain. It’s leaves and berries were believed to be an antidote to any poison, and were given to newborns to make them immune to all poisons. Sarsaparilla tea applied externally was a common remedy for scrofula, ringworm, and tetters. It became popular in North America in the mid 1800’s in the form of Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, marketed to cure disorders of the liver, stomach, and kidneys, rheumatism, female weakness, sterility, and as a blood purifier. In Aryuvedic medicine, it’s also thought to cleanse the mind of negative emotions, making it useful for nervous disorders. It’s considered a male libido booster.
1-2 teaspoons of dried or powdered root, decocted in 1 cup of water for 10-15 minute, taken three times daily, or as a tincture, 1-2 ml three times daily. For psoriasis, it combines well with burdock, cleavers, and yellow dock. It has a very pleasant flavor, and can be combined with sassafras and wintergreen to make Root Beer. Pregnant women should avoid diuretic herbs such as sarsaparilla.
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Main image from Mortar and Petal