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Botanical Description & Habitat

Smilax officinalis


Common names
Honduras sarsaparilla
Red sarsaparilla
Spanish sarsaparilla

Found throughout the tropical regions of the Americas.

The tuberous rootstock produces a woody, angular stem that trails along the ground, reaching 4 to 12 inches in length. The stems have rigid thorns and bear ovate-oblong, alternate, glossy, dark green leaves. The flowers are green-white and grow in petiolate umbels containing 10 to 20 blossoms.

Medicinal parts
Rootstock, fresh or dried, collected in autumn

Historical Properties & Uses

Sarsaparilla has enjoyed worldwide popularity as a powerful medicine. In Honduras and Mexico, the herb is employed against rheumatism. In the United States and China, it is used to treat not only rheumatism, but arthritis, cancer, skin disease, venereal disease (including syphilis), fevers, digestive disorders. It has also been found to be an effective general tonic. In homeopathy, sarsaparilla is often used to treat multiple sclerosis, although this action has not been experimentally verified.

Americans learned about the uses of sarsaparilla from the native Indians, who used several species of the plant in many ways. It was used internally for coughs, hypertension, pleurisy, and as a diuretic, alterative, and general tonic. Externally, it was used to soothe wounds, sore eyes, and burns. These uses were shared by native cultures throughout the Americas.

Shortly after its introduction to Europe, sarsaparilla rose to prominence as a specific treatment for syphilis. Europeans believed its therapeutic effect occurred through some unknown action on the blood; hence the herb was classified as an alterative. Chinese physicians also documented sarsaparilla's anti-syphilis property. In their clinical observations, its effectiveness on primary syphilis was rated at 90%. Although no investigator knew exactly how the herb worked, those effects were obvious and powerful enough to suggest its use for many of the same illnesses and conditions by widely diverse cultures. There may have been some interaction between the cultures of the Western hemisphere accounting for such similarity of use, but the similarities between practices in the Eastern and Western hemisphere cannot be easily explained on any basis other than simple, independent experimentation and observation.

Sarsaparilla has a high concentration of saponins, whose nature is not fully understood. Saponins are seldom biologically inert substances; are found in several herbs used as tonics. Saponins are antimicrobial. Steroidal saponins and genins of the herb closely resemble sex hormones, and are in fact sometimes used in the synthesis of sex hormones. Given the scarcity of controlled experimental research on sarsaparilla, other indicators of the herb's saponin activity must be used. One of those clues is cross-cultural verification, the fact so many different cultures use sarsaparilla for many of the same applications.

This herb has not achieved approval status by the German Commission E. Either there was insufficient evidence in favor, or a contraindication.

Sarsaparilla root and German Sarsaparilla are cited.


Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.

Method of Action

The Active Components Of Sarsaparilla
Principles have not been discovered to account for the varied effects of this herb, nor even for its specific effect against syphilis. It is assumed some nature of the saponins is responsible for observed effects. Known constituents include steroidal saponins, mainly sarsasapogenin and smilagenin, but also sitosterol and stigmasterol. The latter chemicals have been use in the partial synthesis of cortisone. Sarsaparilla saponins have also been used in the synthesis of sex hormones.

Sarsaparilla Has Anti-Syphlitic Properties
Besides the cross-cultural verification of this property, the best known study was carried out in China. Several dozen cases of syphilis were treated with sarsaparilla extract. The physicians reported 90% effectiveness in reducing symptoms and/or effecting regression. No controlled studies have been carried out in Western laboratories or clinics.

Sarsaparilla Has Antimicrobial Action
Routine screening tests have discovered antimicrobial principles in this herb, including the steroidal saponins.

Drug Interactions & Precautions


The German Commission E has not formally approved sarsaparilla.

The German Commission E has noted that the absorption of simultaneously administered substances is increased e.g. digitalis glycosides and bismuth. Elimination of other susbances is accelerated e.g. hypnotics (i.e. barbiturates). This can increase, or decrease, the action of other herbs taken simultaneously.

Possible Interactions

The tannin in sarsaparilla may potentiate the antibiotic activity of echinacea. The tannin in tea made from the herb may be inactivated by the addition of milk or cream.


Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.

Safety Factors & Toxicity

The German Commission E notes the possibility for gastric irritation and temporary kidney impairment, although admits a lack of experience with this herb in Germany.


Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.

Preparation & Administration

There is presently insufficient data on this subject.


Alam, M.I. et al: Isolation, purification and partial characterization of viper venom inhibiting factor from the root extract of the Indian medicinal plant sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus R. Br.). Toxicon. 1994, 32(12): 1,551 - 1,557.

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Claus, E.P., V.E. Tyler & L.R. Brady. Pharmacognosy, 6Th Edition. Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia, 1970, 518 Pages.

Committee on Pharmocopaeia of the Am Institute of Homeopathy, The Homeopathic Pharmacopaeia of the United States. 8th ed., Vol 1. Otis Clapp and Son, Agents, Boston, l981.

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Kiangsu Institute of Medicine. Encyclopedia of Chinese Drugs (2 volumes). Shanghai, Prc.

Leung, Albert Y. 1980. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredient used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics. John Wiley and Sons, New York. 409 pp.

List, P. & L. Hoerhammer. 1969-1976. Hagers Hanbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis, vols. 2-5. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

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Tschesche, R., et. al. Chem. Ber., 102, 1253, 1969.

Vandenplas, O. et al: Occupational asthma caused by sarsaparilla root dust. J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 1996, 97(6): 1,416 - 1,418.

Vincent, D. & G. Segonzac. 1953. Comptes Rendus des Seances de la Societe de Biologie et de ses Filiales, 147. pp. 1776-1779.


Smilax officinalis

? Southwest School of Botanical Medicine


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