Sarsaparilla: A Rhizome From The Americas

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The rhizome of the sarsaparilla plant is native to the Americas, including the West Indies. It belongs to the lily family. Sarsaparilla was not well known outside of the Americas until the 1400s. It was at this point in history that explorers took sarsaparilla root back to Europe from the New World and it became an important tool in European medicine.

Whereas the Native Americans had been using it to treat leprosy, Europeans found that sarsaparilla was beneficial for treating syphilis. They also used it to treat psoriasis and ailments of the urinary tract.

Sarsaparilla would become a universal treatment for syphilis — it was eventually registered in the United States Pharmacopeia for that purpose — and would also be used to treat other conditions around the world. The Chinese used it to treat arthritis, diarrhea, and malaria; along with being a syphilis treatment in the US, it was used to treat hypertension and tuberculosis; in Europe, doctors used it for kidney and urinary tract problems.

In the American West, cowboys often drank a beverage called sarsaparilla in saloons. Even though it was called sarsaparilla, it most likely had no sarsaparilla rhizome at all. The beverage was portrayed in western movies and novels as a soft drink consumed as an alternative to alcoholic beer and whiskey. It was most likely made with sassafras root and would be a precursor of modern root beer.

The name sarsaparilla comes from the Spanish word for bramble or shrub, which is sarza. The parilla part of the name means small vine. The list of names given to sarsaparilla from around the world is long and includes smilax, saparna, and khao yen.

Sarsaparilla flavor profile

Sarsaparilla is sometimes described as one of the best-tasting herbs in nature. Its flavor may be described as a blend of licorice, wintergreen, and vanilla. It is often likened to the flavor of the sassafras used to make root beer.

Health benefits of sarsaparilla

You can get health benefits from sarsaparilla because it contains the following compounds:

  • Flavonoids: Flavonoids provide the pigments that give plants like sarsaparilla their color, along with important antioxidant properties.
  • Saponins: Sarsaparilla contains groups of chemicals called saponins — specifically, sarsapogenin saponins — that are responsible for its most significant health benefits.

You can use sarsaparilla to treat or prevent diseases and health problems like:

  • Syphilis: Treatment for one of the most notorious STDs is one of the oldest ways to use sarsaparilla. Research has shown that sarsaparilla’s antibiotic properties may make it somewhat effective in most syphilis cases; however, it is not as effective as modern antibiotic drugs.
  • Inflammatory diseases: Sarsaparilla has powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Autoimmune disorders: The saponins in sarsaparilla are believed to work by combating endotoxins, which are present in the bloodstreams of people with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions.
  • Gastrointestinal ailments: Studies have shown that sarsaparilla improves appetite and helps with digestion as well.
  • Cancer: Sarsaparilla is effective against certain cancers, according to one recent study. It has exhibited anticancer properties in both breast and liver cancer.

Common uses

Making a tea with sarsaparilla root is the most common way to consume the herb. It is sometimes combined with sassafras in a few of the more traditional recipes for root beer. The saponins in sarsaparilla produce soapy bubbles in a solution, which results in the foamy head that is an important characteristic of root beer.