Native to tropical regions throughout the world, smilax (Smilax), is a large genus of trailing vine plants. Many species produce edible berries, shoots, and roots which are used in traditional medicines. But one of their most well-known uses is within herbal soft drinks known as Sarsaparilla, Sarsi, and Baba Roots.
The Smilax genus is big, with over 300 individual plant species. Most go by common names like carrion flower, sarsaparilla, greenbrier, or catbrier. Some of the most well-known species include Jamaican sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata), China root (Smilax china), and Mexican sarsaparilla (Smilax aristolochiaefolia).
What are the active compounds in Smilax?
Smilax plants have a valued place in herbal medicine within many cultures where they are endemic. They contain phytochemicals known as steroidal saponins, and some species contain pregnane glycosides. Some saponins can be very toxic, but the ones found in smilax are different from those found in deadly pokeweed.
Does Smilax have medical potential?
The steroidal saponins found in smilax are being studied for their potential in treating tumors. These saponins could also have anti-microbial properties. The pregnane glycosides have also shown anticarcinogenic properties.
The steroidal saponins indicate that smilax could be useful in reducing inflammation from joint pain. But further study is needed.
Historically, people have used smilax to treat a variety of conditions, from arthritis to syphilis. Native Americans valued smilax plants as a herbal remedy and used the roots in many medicines. Herbal tea was created to treat mild respiratory illnesses, and also skin conditions. It was also drunk as it was believed it could cleanse the blood.
The most well-documented use of smilax roots is as a treatment for syphilis but also as a general health tonic. European settlers exported smilax roots from America and claimed it could revitalize and cleanse the blood. Though modern studies have proven that it has little effect.
Cultural uses of Smilax
One of the most well-known uses of smilax plants is as the soda-like soft drink made from its roots. Initially, smilax roots were prepared as a tonic and drank as a herbal remedy. However, with the introduction of sugar and sweeteners, they became a valued part of many cultures and were drank for flavor and enjoyment.
In the Caribbean, the Sarsaparilla drink uses roots from Jamaican Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata). In Cuba, a traditional drink known as Pru, uses Smilax domingensis as an active ingredient. Also in China, Smilax glabra roots are brewed to create a drink to treat joint pain.
Most smilax-based drinks taste very similar to root beer, which usually uses the sassafras tree as flavoring instead. Although less popular today, people create tonic versions of Sarsaparilla to treat various conditions. Many people even create their own homebrew.
You can still buy a liter bottle of Sarsaparilla in Tesco brand stores within the UK. It’s also still a popular drink within southeast Asia where it’s known by the brand name, Sarsi. There are old-fashioned sweets known as ‘Sarsaparilla tablets’, though these are flavored with the root of the sassafras tree.
What does Smilax look like?
Smilax plants will usually produce a trailing vine that climbs over other vegetation. But they can also form dense bushes too. Most species have pointed, heart-shaped leaves and thorny vines. Sarsaparilla, loosely translated from Spanish “zarzaparilla”, means bramble vine.
Their flowers are usually inconspicuous white/green clusters. However, when fruits form, the subtle flowers develop into a cluster of shiny red to deep purple berries.
Where does Smilax grow?
Most species are found in tropical regions within areas like China, Africa, South America, India, and the Caribbean. However, you may find some species, like the downy carrion flower (Smilax pulverulenta) and roundleaf greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), in eastern US states.
Still available to buy in some locations throughout the world, smilax plants have been viewed as a herbal cure in many cultures. Smilax could be the key to future medical research, like toxic pokeweed and moonseed, and many other plants with anticancer compounds. For now, it can be enjoyed as a refreshing tonic that could help to reduce inflammation.
Featured Image: Photo by bastus917 on Wikimedia Commons