Names: Black Creeper, Jamaican Sarsaparilla, Sariva, Kalisar, Dudhilata, Sugandhi, Honduras sarsaparilla, red sarsaparilla, Spanish sarsaparilla, Tu fu ling, Dwipautra, Salsepareille (French); Sarsaparille (German); Salsapariglia (Italian); Zarzaparilla (Spanish); Salsaparrilha, Khao Yen, Saparna, Smilace, Smilax
Description: It is a large perennial climber, rhizome underground, large, short, knotted, with thickened nodes and roots spreading up to 15 feet long. Stems erect, semiwoody, with very sharp prickles ½ inch long. Leaves large, alternate stalked, almost evergreen with prominent veins, seven nerved mid-rib very strongly marked. Flowers and fruit not known. Cortex thick and brownish, with an orange red tint; when chewed it tinges the saliva, and gives a slightly bitter and mucilaginous taste, followed by a very acrid one. It is native to South America, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Mexico, Honduras and the West Indies. The root, used for medicinal purposes, is long and tuberous and supports a ground-trailing vine with paired tendrils for climbing. The fragrance of the root is considered pleasant with a spicy sweet taste. Has broadly ovate leaves, tendrils, and small greenish flowers. Roots and rhizomes can be unearthed all year There are many species of Smilax around the world that are very similar in appearance, uses and even chemical structure, including S. officinalis, S. regeli, S. aristolochiaefolia, S. febrifuga, S. sarsaparilla, and S. ornata.
Cultivation: Prefers well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Needs minimum 54F. Propagate by seed, suckers, or division in spring, or by semiripe cuttings in summer. Harvest roots and rhizomes are lifted by severing larger roots near the crown, leaving smaller roots to increase. They are dried for use in decoctions, elixirs, liquid extracts, and powders.
Energetics: sweet, mildly spicy, neutral
Meridians/Organs affected: liver, colon
Constituents: Aluminum, Ash, Beta-sitosterol, Calcium, Cetyl-alcohol , Chromium, Cobalt, Epsilon-sitosterol, Glucose, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Parigenin, Parillin, Phosphorus, Pollinastanol, Potassium, Resin, Saponin, Sarasaponin, Sarsaparilloside, Sarsaponin, Sarsasapogenin, Selenium, Silicon, Sitosterol-d-glucoside, Smilagenin, Smilasaponin, Stigmasterol, Tin, Zinc, traces of essential oil, resin, sugar and fat
History: The word Sarsaparilla comes from the Spanish Sarza, meaning a bramble, and parilla, a vine, in allusion to the thorny stems of the plant. 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 vine that was small. 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 with an epidemic of unusually virulent syphilis sweeping Europe it gained a meteoric rise in popularity. In the American West, cowboys often ordered it after visiting the local brothel. By 1800, many physicians denounced sarsaparilla as completely ineffective against syphilis, but trade still continued.
Medicinal Uses: Used to treat skin disorders, liver problems, rheumatism and hormone excesses. 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 like gonorrhea and syphilis, and for female leuchorrea, and herpes. It combines well with other alteratives and especially with yellow dock, sassafras, burdock, dandelion and red clover. It also is of some help for epilepsy and other nervous system disorders. It is anti-inflammatory and cleansing and can bring relief to skin problems caused by blood impurities such as eczema, psoriasis and itchiness. Chinese tests indicate that sarsaparilla root, in combination with five other herbs, was tested as a treatment for syphilis. Reportedly, 90% of the acute cases subsequently cleared. In Mexico, the root is still frequently consumed for its reputed tonic and aphrodisiac properties. Native Amazonian peoples take sarsaparilla to improve virility and to treat menopausal problems. It has a progesterogenic action, making it beneficial in premenstrual problems and debility and depression associated with menopause. It has a tonic and specifically testosterogenic action on the body (stimulates the production of testosterone) and stimulates natural cortisone, leading to increased muscle bulk, and it has a potential use for impotence.
The majority of Sarsaparilla’s pharmacological properties and actions have been attributed to a pharmacologically active group of phytochemicals called steroids and saponins. The saponins have been reported to facilitate the absorption by the body of other drugs and phytochemicals which accounts for its history of use in herbal formulas as a bioavailability and herbal enhancement agent.
Saponins and plant steroids found in many species of plants, including Sarsaparilla, can be chemically synthesized into human steroids like estrogen and testosterone. This chemical synthesization has never been documented to occur in the human body – only in the laboratory. Plant steroids and their actions in the human body are still a subject of much interest, too little research, and unfortunately, misinformation mainly for marketing purposes. Sarsaparilla has been erroneously touted to contain testosterone and/or other anabolic steroids. While it is a rich source of steroids and saponins, it has never been proven to have any anabolic effects, nor is testosterone found in sarsaparilla or any other plant source thus far. There is no known toxicity or side effects documented for sarsaparilla, however ingestion of large dosages of saponins may cause gastro-intestinal irritation. For psoriasis it will combine well with Burdock, Yellow Dock and Cleavers.
APPLICATIONS: Decoction: pour l-2 teaspoonfuls of the root in a cup of water, bring to the boil and simmer l0-l5 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day. Tincture: take l-2 ml of the tincture three times a day.
Indications: venereal diseases, herpes, skin diseases, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, epilepsy, insanity, chronic nervous diseases, abdominal distention, intestinal gas, debility, impotence, turbid urine. Sarsaparilla purifies the urino-genital tract, dispelling all infection and inflammation. While purifying the blood, it also improves Agni and helps dispel accumulated Vata from the intestines. Its purifying action wends to the nervous system and it helps cleanse the mind of negative emotions; therefore it is useful in many nervous disorders. Sarsaparilla’s diaphoretic and blood-cleansing action is useful for rheumatic inflammation. For herpes and venereal complaints, it can be combined with gentian. It stimulates the production of reproductive hormones and has tonic action on the sexual organs. As a blood-purifier it works well with burdock root. Externally, it can be used as a wash for genital sores or herpes, or as a hot fomentation for painful, arthritic joints. Stalks and leaves-decoction for skin eruptions, hearing disorders, fevers. Root decoction-skin diseases, syphilis, elephantiasis, loss of sensation, hemiplegia, loss of appetite, blood purifier, kidney and urinary disorders. It is best taken with other herbs.
Toxicity: Avoid in cases of pregnancy, steroid therapy or gastric ulcer.
Culinary Uses: Because of its saponin content and pleasant flavor, it is used alone or with sassafras to make 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 sugar to sweeten, and live baking or brewing yeast. Keep covered in a warm place for an hour or two until small bubbles start to rise, showing that fermentation has begun. Decant into bottles and tightly cap. Wait 24 hours before drinking.
1½ ozs ground sarsaparilla root
¾ oz caramel
2½ lbs granulated sugar
7½ pts water
1½ oz tartaric acid
1 crushed Campden tablet
1 tsp yeast nutrient
Bring 1½ pints water to boil and stir in sarsaparilla, caramel and sugar. Stir until sugar and caramel are completely dissolved. Remove from heat and add remaining water. Stir in tartaric acid and yeast nutrient, cover and set aside to cool. When at room temperature, stir in crushed Campden tablet, recover and set aside for 12 hours. Add activated yeast and ferment 4 days, stirring 2-3 time per day. Pour liquid through nylon straining bag into secondary and fit airlock. Rack, top up and refit airlock every 30 days until wine clears and no new sediments form over 30-day period. Stabilize, sweeten if desired, wait 10 days, and rack into bottles. May drink immediately, but improves with 6 months aging.
3 lbs ripe bananas
2 oz ground dried sarsaparilla root
2½ lbs granulated sugar
7½ pts water
½ oz citric acid
½ tsp tannin
1 crushed Campden tablet
1 tsp yeast nutrient
Bring water to boil and stir in sugar until dissolved. Meanwhile, thinly slice bananas with skins intact and put in primary with sarsaparilla, citric acid, tannin, and yeast nutrient. Pour boiling water over ingredients in primary, cover and set aside to cool. When room temperature, stir in crushed Campden, recover primary and set aside 12 hours. Add activated yeast, recover and stir daily for 10 days. Strain liquid into secondary, top up and fit airlock. Rack, top up and refit airlock every 30 days until wine clears and no new sediments form over 30-day period. Stabilize, sweeten to taste, wait 10 days, and rack into bottles. Age 6 months before drinking, although 12 months is better.
Usually wine recipes use the ground dried roots many varieties of the genus Smilax, but especially Smilax aristolochiaefolia or Smilax zarzaparrilla of Mexico. However, it can also be made with the leaves of those plants, or the leaves of Aralia hispida or Aralia nudicaulis. These latter two plants produce clusters of small white flowers which can also be used to make wine, although its flavor will be quite different than wine made from the roots or leaves described above.
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Andrew Chevallier, Dorling Kindersley, 1997; ISBN: 0-7894-1067-2
Planetary Herbology, Michael Tierra, Lotus Press, 1988; ISBN: 0-941-524272
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