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Smilax officinalis

The Plant

Sarsaparilla is a perennial plant of the Smilacaceae family that grows in the rain forest. It has a long tuberous root and an evergreen vine that can reach up to 15m in length. The parts used are the bark and rhizomes, which can be unearthed throughout the year. The roots, shoots, and berries are edible. Sarsaparilla is native to South and Central America, along with many islands in the Caribbean. There are many different species throughout the temperate and tropical areas of the world, including India and parts of China. It is commercially cultivated in Central America. 

It makes a tall groundcover in the fashion of mayapple or goldenseal. Its root is used medicinally, and is sometimes an ingredient in old root beer recipes. 

Therapeutic Properties: Antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, tonic, alterative (blood purifier) diuretic, anti-rheumatic, aphrodisiac, immuno-stimulant, diaphoretic

Indications: Psoriasis, skin ailments, arthritis, rheumatism, hormonal imbalances, low energy, poor elimination and sluggish liver. Improves appetite and digestion.

Tribal wisdom adopted by invaders

Sarsaparilla root has a spicy sweet fragrance and a pleasant taste that was prized by indigenous South American tribes for centuries as a general tonic; especially for sexual impotence, rheumatism and skin ailments. The name sarsaparilla is derived from two Spanish words, sarza, meaning "bramble" and parilla, meaning "vine." European traders learned of its virtues and introduced it into their culture in the 1400s, where it became a cure for syphilis and physicians prescribed it as a blood purifier, diuretic and diaphoretic. Sarsaparilla gradually earned much popularity as an effective medicinal herb and was registered in the United States Pharmacopoeia as a syphilis treatment from 1820 to 1910.

The healthy root beer

Sarsaparilla was once a key ingredient in root beer and other beverages, where it was included for its foaming properties. The original Sarsaparilla or 'sars' drink originated in the 1800s and was served in bars and also used as a home remedy. The beverage however was sassafras and not sarsaparilla. Sassafras and sarsaparilla are two different plants, but they both contain aromatics that smell and taste like root beer. Sassafras root was once used to produce root beer, but that practice was discontinued after the FDA put safrole, the main flavour ingredient of sassafras, on the list of carcinogenic substances.

These days, Root Beer recipes do not include sassafras as the plant has been found to cause hazardous side effects

Often sarsaparilla was the option for those abstaining from alcohol. Nowadays it may be found in herbal tea blend, as great addition due to its rich vanilla-like flavour. In Mexico sarsaparilla is still used as a tonic and aphrodisiac.  

Sarsaparilla is a wonderful aromatic tonic that is an effective alterative, meaning it acts intrinsically as a cleanser or blood purifier, especially targeting the urinary system, liver and gallbladder. This makes sarsaparilla a widely applicable herb to assist healthy functioning of the body as a whole and certainly in the correction of many systemic problems such as skin and rheumatic conditions. Scaly, irritated skin conditions such as psoriasis respond very well to treatments containing sarsaparilla. Combine this herb with yellow dock and burdock to treat such ailments. Researchers believe that a compound in the sarsaparilla root, binds to the endotoxin that causes skin lesions and can purge them from the body. It is understood how the natural antibacterial properties of sarsaparilla berries and the compounds in the roots increase the strength of our immune system.

Ancient remedy still holds sway

The herb is topically applied to treat psoriasis, leprosy, boils, abscesses, skin diseases, wounds and eczema. For centuries sarsaparilla was justifiably a key treatment for syphilis, gonorrhoea and other sexually transmitted diseases. Sarsaparilla is is still used along with conventional drugs for treating leprosy and for syphilis. As an antibacterial, sarsaparilla may be used internally and externally to counteract a variety of infections, including urinary tract infections. 

Sarsaparilla is alkaline, attacking and neutralising toxins, so it is especially good for removing heavy metallic contaminants from the blood, including environmental poisons. The herb exhibits diaphoretic properties, which promote urination and sweating; actions that further aid elimination of toxins through bodily secretions and cool the body during fevers. Sarsaparilla does help to ease inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism and arthritis; and its diuretic properties encourage the excretion of uric acid to relieve gout and protecting the liver from damage.

A powerhouse of minerals and nutrients

Jamaican Sarsaparilla Root (Smilax regelii) wild-harvested in the hills of Jamaica, is a powerhouse of minerals and nutrients. It is said to have the highest concentration of iron in any plant, and has been known to cure anemia, impotency in men, and other disorders that may arise from "weak blood". Sarsaparilla contains vitamins A, B-complex, C and D and the amino acids methionine and cysteine. It is very rich in trace minerals, primarily selenium and zinc, as well as iron, manganese, sodium, silicon, sulphur, copper and iodine.

Such elements make the herb a balancer of the glandular system and a strengthener to the nerve fibres and tissues of the brain, spinal cord, lungs, and throat. 

Sexual tonic and aphrodisiac

The roots are rich in steroidal saponins that provide the building blocks necessary for the body to produce steroidal hormones. It contains diogenin, a saprogen that in turn contains the female hormone progesterone and the male hormone testosterone, which can restore both sexual interest and erectile function. It is a boost to the female sex drive and helpful to lessen menopausal symptoms. As a hormone enhancing treatment, include sarsaparilla with liquorice, ginseng and wild yam for excellent results. The sterols found in Sarsaparilla can also increase the male sex drive and have been shown to increase blood flow and boost sperm motility.

 A while ago, sarsaparilla was popular amongst fitness enthusiasts because it increases lean body mass and boosts stamina and energy. Its use was endorsed by many body-builders to build muscle mass, while avoiding the harmful side effects of anabolic steroids. Athletes can benefit from regular use of this muscle-building herb, which boosts energy and stamina while easing the inflammatory conditions brought about by strenuous exercise. For a general wellness tonic, sarsaparilla root helps promote hair growth, keeps the skin hydrated and is said to enhance vision. 

In the Tinderbox apothecary we use sasaparilla in: Aphrodisi Herbal Tea Fruity Ginseng Tea Man's Tea and Rosehip & Elderflower Elixir

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