United States Dispensatory 1926
Potters Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. 1988
Compiled by Ivor Hughes

" Sarsaparilla is the dried root of Smilax medico, Chamisso and Schlechtendal, known in commerce as Mexican Sarsaparilla; or of Smilax officinalis Kunth, or of an undetermined species of Smilax known in commerce as Honduras Sarsaparilla; or of Smilax ornata Hooker films known in commerce as Central American or Jamaica Sarsaparilla (Fam. Liliaceae). Sarsaparilla contains not more than 2 per cent, of foreign organic matter, excepting the rhizome and crown portion, which must be removed before the root is ground and powdered. Mexican Sarsaparilla yields not more than 4 per cent, of acid-insoluble ash. The other official varieties conform to the standards for acid insoluble ash under Vegetable Drugs." U. S.

Sarsae Radix, Br., 1898; Jamaica Sarsaparilla; Salsepareille du Mexique, Fr.; Radix Sarsaparillae, P. G.; Sarsaparille, Sarsaparilla, G.; Salsapariglia, It. Zarzaparrilla (Raiz de), Sp.

The plants comprising the genus Smilax are climbing or trailing vines or shrubs, with a pair of tendrils arising as modified stipules from the bases of their petioles, 3- to 7-nerved and strongly reticulate leaf blades and prickly stems. The last mentioned character is expressed in the name of the drug, which is derived from two Spanish words (zarza and parilla), signifying a small, thorny vine. The official sarsaparilla-yielding plants are all climbing evergreen shrubs with prickly stems, alternate, coriaceous leaves which vary from cordate, cordate-ovate, auriculo-hastate to ovate-oblong in outline, small flowers, arranged in axillary umbels, and berry fruits.

They are indigenous to Mexico, Central America, and the warm latitudes of South America. The roots are very long and slender, and originate in great numbers from a common head or rhizome, from which the stems of the plant rise. The whole root with the rhizome is usually dug up, and as brought into market exhibits not infrequently portions of the stems attached, sometimes several inches in length. The commercial sarsaparillas are conveniently divided into the mealy and non-mealy sarsaparillas. The first class comprises especially the Honduras, Guatemala, and Brazilian varieties; the second the Jamaica, Mexican and Guayaquil sarsaparillas. A very convenient key for distinguishing the commercial sarsaparillas by certain anatomical characters has been devised by Luerssen in his Handbuch der Medicinpharm. Botanik, ii, 404.

Smilax medico, yields the variety known commercially as Mexican, Vera Cruz, Tampico or Gray Sarsaparilla. It occurs as clusters of long roots attached to a knotty crown (portion of the rhizome) or as rootlets deprived of the crown. These are packed, commonly, in large, rather loose bales weighing about 200 pounds. The roots are grayish-brown to dark brown, nearly devoid of fibrous rootlets and possess deep furrows to which a blackish earth frequently adheres. Histologically, they are characterized by their hypodenmal and endodermal cells. The former show their outer and radial walls more thickened than the inner walls while the latter show the inner and radial walls more thickened than the outer walls. Mexican sarsaparilla is imported from Vera Cruz and Mexico City.

Smilax officinalis or an undetermined species of Smilax yields the commercial variety known as Honduras or Brown Sarsaparilla. It occurs in cylindrical bundles from 2 to 3 feet in length which are composed of long roots folded lengthwise. Each bundle is closely tied around with a long root usually of the same plant. The roots are externally of a reddish-brown or dark brown color and show occasional fibrous rootlets. Histologically they are characterized by their uniformly thickened 'hypodennal and endodermal cells. This variety is imported from Honduras in serons containing a number of bundles.

Smilax ornata yields the commercial variety known as Jamaica, Costa Rica or Red Sarsaparilla. It is collected in Central America, especially in Costa Rica, and it owes its name to the fact that it has been largely exported to London through the island of Jamaica. It is the most highly prized variety used in Great Britain. As found in commerce it is in rolls from twelve to eighteen inches long by four or five in thickness, composed exclusively of long slender many-radicled roots very loosely held together by a few turns. Sometimes it is pressed into large bales. It is further to be distinguished from Honduras Sarsaparilla by its dark color, the greater abundance of coarse rootlets, the less quantity of starch, its relatively thick cortex, and its less sharp taste. Externally it is also redder than is commonly the case with Honduras Sarsaparilla. Kobert (P. J., 1912, Ixxxviii, p. 779) has found that the S. ornata has only one-eighth of the hemolytic power of the Vera Cruz Sarsaparilla, which he takes as a test of its saponin content. He believes the plant is unfit for medical use.

Cultivated Jamaica Sarsaparilla (Roja Inglesa) occurs in thick short rolls and is especially characterized by its yellow-brown or orange color. According to W. B. Hemsley, Hooker's I. P. pi. 2589, it is the product of S. utilis Hemsley, a species related to S. ornata, from which it differs by its long pediculated simple umbels.

Several other varieties of Sarsaparilla occasionally occur on the world's markets, the most important of which are Guayaquil and Lima sarsaparillas. Guayaquil Sarsaparilla, according to Spruce grows in valleys on the western slopes of the equatorial Andes. It is usually imported in rectangular shaped bales which contain a number of flattened bundles of rhizomes and roots, or roots only. The rhizome and a portion of the stem are often present, the latter being round and prickly. The root is mahogany brown, large, and coarse-looking, with a good deal of fiber. The bark is furrowed, rather thick, and not mealy in the slenderer portions of the root, which is near the rootstalk; but, as the root becomes stout, so its bark becomes smoother, thicker, and amylaceous, exhibiting when cut a fawn-colored or pale yellow interior. It is thought to be yielded by a variety of S. papyracea.

Lima or Lima Jamaica Sarsaparilla comes from Panama. It bears a close resemblance to Jamaica Sarsaparilla but occurs in longer bundles and is packed in layer bales.

Caracas Sarsaparilla was formerly brought in large quantities from La Guayra but is now off the market.

Brazilian, Para or Lisbon Sarsaparilla which formerly came from Para, Brazil, has practically disappeared from North America and European commerce but is said to be still used in South American countries. It occurred in cylindrical bundles from three to five feet in length by about a foot in thickness, bound about by close circular turns of a very flexible stem, and consisting of unfolded roots, destitute of caudex (rhizome) and stems, and having a few radical fibers. It is distinguished by the thinness of its cortex, the large amount of starch that it contains and its large, radially elongated endodermal cells.

The rhizome of Smilax China, a native of China and Japan, has been employed under the name of China Boot for similar purposes with the official Sarsaparilla. As it occurs in commerce, it is in pieces from three to eight inches long and an inch or two thick, usually somewhat flattened, more or less knotty, often branched, of a brownish or grayish-brown color externally, whitish or of a light flesh-color internally, without odor, and of a taste flat at first, but afterwards very slightly bitterish and somewhat acrid, like that of sarsaparilla. The root of Smilax aspera is said to be employed in the south of Europe as a substitute for sarsaparilla; but it has little reputation. The East India sarsaparilla, which was at one time referred to this species of smilax, is the product of Hemidesmus indicus. (See Hemidesmus.)

The chief adulterants of Sarsaparilla roots have been aerial stems of similar plants, excessive rhizomes, roots of various species of Philodendron and rhizomes of Pteris species.

Description and Physical Properties. � " Sarsaparilla is nearly odorless; taste mucilaginous, somewhat sweetish and acrid.
Unground Mexican Sarsaparilla. � Long roots from 3.5 to 6 mm. in diameter, frequently attached to a crown having one or more stout stems; usually shrunken, forming sharp longitudinal ridges and broad furrows; externally light grayish-brown to dark brown; the furrows may contain more or less blackish earth; finely hairy; nearly devoid of branches or fibrous rootlets; fracture of cortex brittle, of central cylinder tough and fibrous; cortex mealy and whitish or brownish and horny; woody zone yellow and porous; pith whitish and distinct.

Unground Honduras Sarsaparilla. � Long roots from 2 to 5 mm., rarely 6 mm. in diameter and bound together by roots of the same plant into compact cylindrical bundles from 8 to 15 cm. in diameter; externally reddish-brown or dark brown, longitudinally wrinkled or finely furrowed with occasional fibrous rootlets; fracture short, sometimes tough and fibrous in the central cylinder; internally a reddish-brown, dark brown, or occasionally light gray cortex, a light yellow and porous woody zone and a whitish pith.

Unground Central American Sarsaparilla. � Roots long, from 1 to 4, rarely 5 mm. in diameter; externally light brown or reddish-brown, longitudinally wrinkled, occasionally nearly smooth, rarely furrowed and bearing numerous coarse fibrous rootlets; fracture short or tough and fibrous in the central cylinder; internally a white or dark brown cortex, a yellow, porous woody zone and a yellow or white pith.

Structure, � An epidermal layer with basal portions of root hairs; a hypodermis of several layers of strongly lignified cells, the walls being uniformly thickened, except in Mexican Sarsaparilla in which the inner walls are only slightly thickened; a cortex composed of parenchyma cells mostly containing starch, some containing resin or raphides of calcium oxalate, and an endodermis of a single layer of strongly lignified cells, the walls being uniformly thickened except in Mexican Sarsaparilla in which the outer walls are only slightly thickened; a central cylinder composed of a many-rayed vascular bundle and a pith of starch-bearing parenchyma cells; tracheae large, oval in transverse section and the phloem in small groups near the periphery of the bundle.

Powdered Sarsaparilla. � Light grayish-brown to dark grayish-brown; starch grains numerous, single or compound, the individual grains from 0.003 to 0.023 mm. in diameter, spherical, or biconvex or spherieal-tetrahedral and frequently with a central elliptical cleft; calcium oxalate in raphides occurring singly or in groups up to 0.15 mm. in length; cells of the hypodermis and endodermis with lemon-yellow or reddish-yellow porous walls and in Mexican sarsaparilla showing an uneven or irregular thickening, the cells being from 0.08 to 0.50 mm. in length; fragments of trachea with simple and bordered pores or scalariform or reticulate thickenings, associated with fibers having rather thin, very slightly lignified and porous walls." U. S.

According to Tunmann (Apoth Zeit., xxv, p. 475), the consumption of sarsaparilla in Europe has decreased materially, and the chief market for this drug at the present time appears to be the United States. While the U. S. Pharmacopoeia recognizes three commercial varieties, most of the drug which is used is the (Mexican variety, a relatively small quantity of Honduras sarsaparilla being imported. The Red Jamaica, Orange or Native Jamaica varieties are used chiefly in England.

Hartwich has pointed out that the varieties of sarsaparilla on the market are more numerous than are generally supposed. He also states that the greatest emphasis should be placed on the structural characteristics in order to distinguish the several varieties, rather than the form of packing and the supposed botanical origin. He has contributed numerous papers on the subject. (S. W. P., 1897, 1898 and 1909; A. Pharm., 1902; B. P. G., 1907.) Eusby reports finding lots of Mexican sarsaparilla which consisted entirely of "butts" or rhizomes. (Proc. A. Ph. A., 1908, Ivi, p. 773.) Kraemer reports finding nineteen ounces of dirt in a bundle of Mexican sarsaparilla weighing four and a half pounds. (Proc. A. Ph.. A., 1906, liv, p. 345.) Rusby has reported the presence of a thick, blackish, woody and decidedly astringent root in several shipments of Vera Cruz sarsaparilla. (J. A. Ph. A., 1913, p. 1104.)

Sarsaparilla is efficient in proportion as it is acrid to the taste, which is said by some authors to be confined to the cortical portion, while the ligneous fiber and medullary matter are insipid and inert. Hancock avers that all parts are equally acrid and efficacious. The truth is probably between the two extremes, and, as in most medicinal roots it must be admitted that the bark is more powerful than the interior portions, while these are not wholly inactive.

Constituents. � The most important principles in sarsaparilla are three glucosidal saponins: smila-saponin, C20H32O10, sarsa-saponin, C22H36O10, and parillin, C26H44O10. These principles have been given various names by different chemists, thus smila-saponin has been known as smilacin and sarsaparill-saponin, and parillin has been known as pariglin, parillinic acid and salseparin. When the sugar radical is split off by hydrolysis, they yield products which are at least isomeric, and probably identical, and known as sarsasapogenin or parigenin (C28H46O4). Because of the uncertainty of the botanical material with which many of the chemical investigations have been made, it is impossible to state definitely which of these glucosides occur in each of the plants known commercially as sarsaparilla, but it is probable that the varieties of this drug differ in their composition. Power and Salway (Tr. Chem. Soc., 1914, cv, p. 201) found in the Jamaica sarsaparilla only one of "these, sarsaponin, and are inclined to doubt the separateness of smilacin. They also found a new dicarboxylic acid, sarsapic acid, C6H4O6. For .further details on chemistry, see Schulz (P. J., 1892, p. 6), Robert (A. J. P., 1892, p. 465), and Apt (B. P. G., 1921, xxxi, p. 155).

The sarsaparilla of commerce is apt to be nearly if not quite inert, either from age, or from having been obtained from inferior species of Smilax. This inequality of the medicine, with the improper modes of preparing it long in vogue, has probably contributed to its variable reputation. The only criterion of good sarsaparilla to be relied on is the taste. If it leave a decidedly acrid impression in the mouth after having been chewed for a short time, it may be considered efficient; if otherwise, it is probably inert. Various false sarsaparillas have been sent into commerce from South America, For description by C. Hartwich see A. Pharm., July, 1902.

Uses. � The use of sarsaparilla in medicine is an interesting example of the power of superstition to survive the attacks of truth and reason. It was introduced into Europe about the middle of the 16th century as a remedy for syphilis, but soon fell into disrepute until revived by Fordyce in 1757. Subsequently it came to be used as an alterative in various other chronic diseases, especially chronic rheumatism and scrofula. There is, however, no reason to believe that it possesses any virtues except as a mild gastric irritant through its saponin content. Its most popular employment is in the form of its compound syrup which is used as a vehicle especially for mercury and potassium iodide.

Sarsaparilla may be administered in the form of infusion, compound decoction, compound syrup, or fluidextract. A beer made by fermenting an infusion of the drug with molasses is .said to be a popular remedy in South America. The smoke of sarsaparilla has been recommended in asthma. (J. P. C., xviii, 221.)

Dose, thirty to sixty grains (2-3.9 Gm.).

Off. Prep. � Fluidextractum Sarsaparillae, U.S. (Br.); Fluidextractum Sarsaparillae Compositum, N. F.; Syrupus Sarsaparillae Compositus, U. S. (from Fluidextract); Decoctum Sarsaparillae Compositum, N. F.

Potters Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations 1988.

SARSAPARILLA Smilax aristolochiaefolia Mill S. regelii Killip et Morton S. febrifuga Kunth S. officinalis Kunth

Fam. Liliaceae

Synonyms: S. aristolochiaefolia: American, Mexican, Vera Cruz or Grey Sarsaparilla S. medico, Schlecht; S. regelii: Jamaican, Honduras or Brown Sarsaparilla; S. febrifuga: Ecuadorian or Guayaquil Sarsaparilla. Indian Sarsaparilla is Hemidesmus indicus Brown (Aristolochiaceae) and is no longer used medicinally.

Habitat: The origins are not always easy to determine but some indication is apparent from the names. The plants are climbing vines native to tropical America and the West Indies.

Description: The roots are narrow, very long, cylindrical, up to about 6mm in diameter and usually found in commerce folded and bound into bundles. Pieces of rhizome, if present, are much thicker and are cut. The external surface varies from greyish to yellowish or reddish brown; ridges, furrows and scars may or may not be present. The transverse section also shows highly variable features. Taste, sweetish and acrid; odourless.

Part Used: Roots, rhizome.

Constituents: (i) Saponins, based on the aglycones sarsapogenin and smilagenin; the major one being parillin (= sarsaponin), with smila-saponin (= smilacin) and sarsaparilloside (ii) �-sitosterol, stigmasterol and their glucosides.

Medicinal Use: Alterative, anti-inflammatory, antipruritic, antiseptic. Sarsaparilla was first introduced by the Spanish in 1563 as a sure cure for syphilis. It has been used for many years as a treatment for skin diseases, including psoriasis. In a study many years ago patients with psoriasis were treated over a two-year period with "sarsaponin" tablets prepared from sarsaparilla; and improvement was noted in 62% of cases. Parillin has antibiotic activity. The therapeutic actions of sarsaparilla are unknown and little recent work has been carried out. In China, other species of Smilax are used for similar purposes, for rheumatism, skin diseases, dysentery and even syphilis with apparent success. Sarsaparilla is an ingredient of soft drinks.

Preparations: Powdered Root,

Dose: 1 - 4g; Concentrated Compound Sarsaparilla Decoction BPC 1949, dose: 8 - 30 ml; Sarsaparilla Liquid Extract BP 1898, dose: 8 -15ml.

Potter's Products: Jamaican Sarsaparilla Liquid, Alterative Tablet No. 34, Compound Elixir of Trifolium.

Regulatory Status: GSL. (General sales list)

Further information on the preparations are to be found in the NF and Martindales 24th (Flavouring agents) .. Use the search box at the top right hand of the page or else peruse the site library.