Perennial woody climber growing to 16 ft (5 m). Has broadly ovale leaves, tendrils, and small greenish flowers.
Habitat & Cultivation
Sarsaparilla species are found in tropical rainforests and in temperate regions in Asia and Australia. The root is gathered throughout the year.
Sarsaparilla contains 1–3% steroidal saponins, phytosterols (including beta- and e-sitosterol), about 50% starch, resin, sarsapic acid, and minerals. Despite the herb’s reputation for being testosterogenic, the steroidal saponins and sterols are estrogenic and anti-inflammatory. The saponins also have antibiotic activity.
History & Folklore
Brought from the New World to Spain in 1563, sarsaparilla was heralded as a cure for syphilis, reportedly having been used in the Caribbean with some success. The claims, however, were grossly inflated and the herb’s popularity soon waned. In Mexico, sarsaparilla has traditionally been used to treat a variety of skin problems. Before it was replaced by artificial agents, sarsaparilla root was the original flavoring for root beer.
Medicinal Actions & Uses
Sarsaparilla is anti-inflammatory and cleansing, and the herb can bring relief to skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, and general itchiness, and help treat rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout. Its estrogenic action makes it beneficial in premenstrual problems, and menopausal conditions such as debility and depression. Native Amazonian peoples take sarsaparilla to improve virility and to treat menopausal problems. In Mexico, the root is still frequently consumed for its reputed tonic and aphrodisiac properties.
Some of the steroidal saponins have been shown to bind to toxins within the gut, reducing their absorption into the bloodstream. This may account for sarsaparilla’s usefulness in autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis, which can be associated with this sort of toxicity. Clinical research in China suggests that sarsaparilla might hold potential in the treatment of leptospirosis, a rare disease transmitted to humans by rats, and the acute stage of syphilis.