Sarsaparilla was one of the Eclectics favorite drugs. When a patient needed to mount resistance to an infection, or was no longer able to maintain resistance, the Eclectics thought of Smilax. It was considered a powerful life force building agent.
Chapter from “Thirty Plants that Can Save Your Life” by Dr. Douglas Schar
Chapter from My PhD Thesis
Notes from the Eclectic Physicians
Chapter from “Thirty Plants that Can Save Your Life” by Dr. Douglas Schar
Did you ever wonder why old-fashioned drugstores had soda counters and fountains? Many years ago, in the days when everybody took tonics, the tonics were often made by druggists.
They would collect tonic plants and brew them into a syrup which was then sweetened with honey or sugar. Formerly, people bought tonic syrups from the druggist and mixed their tonic syrup with water at home. At the turn of the century, carbonated water came into vogue, and the druggists began offering their brand tonics mixed with soda water right at the drugstore. One of the most popular tonics of the day was root beer.
The base of root beer was made of ginger root, sassafras root, and sarsaparilla, and to this pharmacists added their own favorite herbs. But that was then – today’s root beer is usually artificially flavored.
Sarsaparilla is furnished by the root of a climbing plant of the genus Smilax, which prevails over the northern part of South America, the whole of Central America, the west coast of Mexico, and up and down the East Coast of the United States. While there are a number of different sarsaparillas used in medicine, all reputedly have about the same health-giving properties.
The plant was said to have been introduced to Seville about 1536 from “New Spain” and Honduras. Pedro de Cieze de Leon’s Chronicle of Peru , written in 1553, mentions sarsaparilla as growing in South America, where the Spaniard had observed it as early as 1533. He found it to be one of the most excellent New World remedies he had encountered and considered it particularly good at treating syphilis and acute debility. The Spanish called it zarza parilla , which was altered to create the English word sarsaparilla .
Writing in 1559, Girolamo Cardano of Milan deemed it the supreme blood purifier and body enhancer. When the British arrived on American shores, they too ran into sarsaparilla and valued it as highly as the Spanish had.
Because the plant is indigenous to the Americas, most early mentions of it come from contacts colonials made with the Native Americans. In 1624, Sagard reported its use among the Huron tribe for healing sores, ulcers, and wounds. In 1708, Sarrazin-Vaillant wrote of the northern sarsaparilla, “The plant passed here for sarsaparilla because its root is something like it and has the same virtues almost as powerfully. I treated a patron who two years ago was cured of dropsy by using a drink of the root of this plant.” Carver had even more to say about sarsaparilla in 1778:The root of this plant, which is the most estimable part of it, is about the size of a goose quill, and runs in different directions, twined and crooked, to a great length in the ground, and from the principle stele of it springs many smaller fibers, all of which are tough and flexible, the bark of the root, which alone should be used in medicine, is of a bitterish taste, but aromatic, it is deservedly esteemed for its medicinal virtues, being a gentle sudorifin and very powerful in attenuating the blood when impeded by gross humors.
The Native Americans felt pretty strongly about sarsaparilla, believing it to be the supreme spring and blood tonic. The Chippewa, Meskwaki, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and the Tete de Boule tribes all reported to the colonials that when an illness threatened to turn into consumption, sarsaparilla should be taken immediately. The belief was that any weakness could be turned into strength with the addition of some sarsaparilla.
By the mid-1800s, its use had caught on among white physicians who, according to Gunn, prescribed it as a treatment “in constitutional diseases, such as scrofula, syphilis, skin diseases, and where an alterative and purifying medicine is needed.” By the year 1868, the plant was esteemed highly enough that it was included in an official list of Canadian medicinal plants.The root beer served at so many drugstores was first called New Orleans Mead, presumably due to its popularity among Louisiana’s Cajuns and Creoles.
In case you are interested in making a little for yourself, here is a recipe from the 1876 Canadian Pharmacy :8 ounces of sarsaparilla, licorice, cassia, and ginger. 2 ounces of cloves, 3 ounces of coriander seed, boil for fifteen minutes in eight gallons of water, let it stand until cold. Then strain through flannel and add to it in the soda fountain, syrup 12 pints, honey 4 pints, tincture of ginger 4 ounces, and solution of citric acid 4 ounces.The main ingredient, as you can see, was sarsaparilla.
For all we know, it may still be an important component of commercial root beers, but there’s no way to tell because contemporary soda manufacturers refuse to reveal their recipes. Luckily, the Choctaw Indians were more forthcoming. They considered sarsaparilla the best available general tonic, and they told the Creole country doctors about it. According to Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men , root doctors in the bayou also used it in prescriptions for those who suffered from venereal diseases and “lost minds.”
And to this day, country folk will tell you that the root is number one for blood cleansing and strengthening.Though root beer may have started in Louisiana, it caught on quickly throughout the United States, and a number of similar products were offered up for sale. The Shakers advertised their “Compound Concentrated Syrup of Sarsaparilla” in 1837 with an assertion that:This medicine, taken in doses of an ounce, 4 or 5 times a day will fulfill every indication that the boasted panaceas and catholicons can perform; is free from the mercurial poisons such nostrums contain; and is much more safe and efficient as a medicine for cleansing and purifying the blood.
Like the Native Americans, the Shakers believed that when an alternative was needed, this was the plant. Whatever ailed you would be taken away with the use of sarsaparilla, or the syrup thereof. For years pharmacists from coast to coast agreed, and used it in their pet formulas for tonics. We will too.You can buy sarsaparilla root from you local herb seller, who gets it from the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, or South America, or you can gather it yourself. The North American wild stock has been pretty hard hit in the past century, but it still can be found in patches up and down the East Coast and working towards the West. I have never heard of sarsaparilla’s being planted in the garden, but that’s not to say that it couldn’t be done.
Chapter from My PhD Thesis
Part Used: Root
Chemical Constituents: Significant phytochemicals include parigenin, parillin, resin, saponin, sarasaponin, sarsaparilloside, sarsaponin, sarsasapogenin, similagenin, and smilasaponin. (10)
Sarsaparilla is a generic name given to a collection of different members of the Smilax species. This group of plants is native to South America, the whole of Central America , and the West Coast of Mexico. They can be found growing in a climbing manner, attaching themselves to trees and shrubs throughout that range. Their medicinal qualities were known to Native Americans and from there were adopted into Spanish Colonial medical practice. Monardes reports that the drug was introduced to Seville about 1536. The “Chronicle of Peru,” by Pedro de Cieze de Leon, written in 1553, mentions sarsaparilla as being useful in syphilis and acute rheumatism. The Spaniards called the drug zarza parilla, which in time gave way to sarsaparilla. An early item of commerce, great quantities of sarsaparilla were sent to Europe to combat syphilis and other chronic diseases. European doctors working and living in North America popularised the drug in the English speaking colonies. It was official in every early edition of U.S.P., from 1820 to 1910. The USP directs the use of the root of Smilax medica (Mexican sarsaparilla), Smilax officinalis, Honduran sarsaparilla, or Smilax ornata ( Jamaica sarsaparilla). (9)
Eclectic Uses (1–9)
Alterative, diuretic, emetic, diaphoretic, nutritive, demulcent, normalises physiological function, improves appetite, facilitates digestion, augments strength, constitutional and mental capacities, improves or relieves morbid conditions causing debility, powerful heart sedative.
“Abnormal conditions requiring elimination of morbid matters from the system through the skin and kidneys.” (7)
Inveterate syphilis, secondary syphilis, pseudo-syphilis, mercurio-syphilis, struma in all its forms, chronic rheumatism, chronic cutaneous disease, passive general dropsy, depraved conditions of the general system, cachectic states of the system, vitiated states of the general system, tuberculosis, systemic tuberculosis, gout, abnormal conditions requiring elimination of morbid material through the skin or kidneys, blood dyscrasia.
Syphilitic sore throats, chronic hepatic disorders with torpor.
Passive general dropsy, inactive kidneys irritated by the presence of large quantities of uric acid and urates.
Gonorrhoeal rheumatism, chronic rheumatism following syphilis.
Chronic cough, with relaxation of the mucous membranes, especially in syphilitic individuals.
Chronic diseases of the skin, herpes, cutaneous disease built upon blood dyscrasia.
The drug from Selye’s perspective
State of Resistance
The drug was used to raise resistance to syphilis, pseudosyphilis, mercuriosyphilis, rheumatism, tuberculosis, gout, gonorrhoea, and blood dyscrasia.
State of Exhaustion
The drug was used when resistance to chronic disease could no longer be maintained and State of Exhaustion set in. Conditions causing this state treated with this drug, included syphilis, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, and rheumatism. Signs of State of Exhaustion , treated with this drug included wasting in all its forms, kidney failure, passive general dropsy, depraved/vitiated conditions of the general system, cachexia, neuralgia, respiratory abnormalities, cutaneous disease built upon blood dyscrasia, abnormal conditions requiring increased elimination, and mucous membrane abnormalities.
From Selye’s perspective, the drug was used to augment the GAS, which suggests it increases adaptation energy. Evidence to this effect includes the following. The Eclectics used Smilax ssp. to raise resistance to chronic infection and autoimmune disease. Once resistance had worn out, and the physiological abnormalities of State of Exhaustion set in, the drug was employed. Lastly, when vital energy was diminished through chronic disease, and physiological processes were thereby depressed, the drug was used.
Brekhman’s Adaptogen Criterion
An adaptogen should be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism.The drug is considered innocuous both in Eclectic and contemporary literature. (1–10)The action of an adaptogen should be non-specific i.e. it should increase resistance to adverse influences of a wide range of factors of physical, chemical, and biological nature.Clinically the drug was used to increase resistance to acute and chronic microbial infection, autoimmune disease, and mercury poisoning. (1–9)Experimentally, Parillin has been determined to increase resistance to bacterial infection and cancer. (10)An adaptogen may possess normalising action irrespective of the direction of the foregoing pathological changes.Clinically the drug was used to treat the range of physiological abnormalities associated with stage of exhaustion. This included wasting, abnormal waste excretion, membrane permeability abnormalities (dropsy, hydrothorax, etc.), break down of the cutaneous tissues and mucous membrane, and temperature abnormalities. (1–9)
The drug exhibits properties consistent with Brekhman’s definition of an adaptogen. It is innocuous, it raises resistance to a wide range of biological threats, and it normalises physiological function. Sarsaparilla was one of the Eclectics favourite drugs. When a patient needed to mount resistance to an infection, or was no longer able to maintain resistance, the Eclectics thought of Smilax. It was considered one of the most powerful agents in the Eclectic pharmacopoeia and the words the Eclectics used to describe this drug are compelling. The drug was used with success when resistance failed and State of Exhaustion set in. As an example, when a gonorrhoeal infection turned into gonorrhoeal arthritis, with ulceration of the mucous membrane, skin, and conjunctiva, and wasting. Or when Syphilis became tertiary syphilis with yellowed skin, falling hair, abnormal bony deposits and insanity due to break down of the nervous tissue.Intriguingly, it was also used in syphilis patients having been poisoned with mercury. One organ normally left alone by syphilis is the kidney. However, in the syphilis patient treated with mercury, this is not the case. The kidneys are selectively damaged by mercury. This type of syphilis patient often had severely damaged kidneys. The Eclectics said that even in these cases, the drug made a difference. Kidney function normalised under its influence.The Smilax species are very much forgotten drugs. The historical data and the preliminary scientific data suggest the drugs warrant attention. However, because so many different species were used, the matter of which species needs to be sorted out as a first matter of business.
Potential Clinical Applications
The drug was used when acute infection overwhelmed the body, or when chronic infection wore the body out. In both cases, the Eclectics said the drug would raise resistance. It may have a role in raising resistance to infection.
• Assessment of the Smilax species. The Eclectics used three different species, Smilax medica, Smilax officinalis, and Smilax ornata as tonics. Asian cultures use a different species (Smilax glabra and Smilax sinensis) for similar purposes. A study should be conducted looking at the entire genus to determine which drugs are the most likely candidates for future study, bearing in mind historical uses, scientific data, and drug availability.
• Effects of selected Smilax species on the GAS. Selected species should be tested out in the animal model to determine which of the species is the most powerful adaptogen/s in the genus.
• Smilax species and acute and chronic infection. The drugs role in raising resistance to both types of infections should be examined.
• Smilax species and infection related State of Exhaustion . The drugs’ ability to stabilise patients in infection related State of Exhaustion should be examined. Reiter’s Syndrome and HIV infections would be ideal disease processes for such study.
• King, John. The American Eclectic Dispensatory. Moore , Wilstach, and Keys. Cincinnati . 1854. P. 880.
• Scudder, J. M. The American Eclectic Materia Medica and Therapeutics. Published by the Author. Cincinnati . 1883. P. 258, 480.
• Scudder, J. M. The Eclectic Family Physician. Twenty first edition, fifth revision. Two volumes in one, with appendix. John K. Scudder. Cincinnati . 1887. P. 224.
• Felter, Harvey Wickes and Lloyd, John Uri. Kings’ American Dispensatory. Volume one and Volume two. Ohio Valley Company. Cincinnati . 1898. P. 1728.
• Felter, Harvey. Syllabus of Eclectic Materia Medica and Therapeutics. Compiled from notes taken from the lectures of F.J.Locke. Edited with pharmacological additions by H.W.Felter. Second edition, with appendix. Scudder Brothers Company. Cincinnati.1901. P. 353.
• Lloyd, JU. History of the Vegetable Drugs of the Pharmacopoeia of the United States . Bulletin number 18: pharmacy number 4. 1911. P. 74.
• Fyfe, John William. Pocket Essentials of Modern Materia Medica and Therapeutics. The Scudder Brothers Company. 1903. P. 271.
• Ellingwood, Finley. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Pharmacognosy. Ellingwood’s Therapeutist. Chicago . 1919. P. 372.
• Lloyd, John Uri. Origin and History of all the Pharmacopoeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations. Volume 1: Vegetable Drugs. The Caxton Press. Cincinnati . 1921. P. 288.
• Dr. Dukes Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Agricultural Research Service. USDA.
Notes from the Eclectic Physicians
1854; John King
Properties and Uses. – Sarsaparilla is generally considered as an alterative, though stated by some to possess diuretic, diaphoretic, and emetic properties. Its mode of action, however, is not well understood, as it effects normal changes in the system without any apparent influence over any of the functions. No medicine has, probably, ever passed through so many changes of reputation, having been at various times most highly lauded as an efficient alterative, and as often been pronounced inert. there is no doubt, however, that when properly prepared, it exerts a favorable influence over the system. The diseases in which it has been more particularly recommended, are inveterate syphilis, pseudo-syphilis, mercurio-syphilis, and struma in all its forms. It has also been advised in chronic rheumatism, chronic cutaneous diseases, passive general dropsy, gonorrheal neuralgia, and other depraved conditions of the system, where an alterative is required. A beer is made in South America, which enjoys much reputation there as an alterative beverage; it is made of Rio Negro Sarsaparilla one pound, raspings of guaiac wood six ounces, aniseed and bruised liquorice root, of each two ounces, mezereon root-bark one ounce, molasses one pound and half a dozen bruised cloves; pour upon these articles two gallons of boiling water, and shake the vessel three times a day. As soon as fermentation has well begun, it may be taken in doses of four fluid ounces two or three times a day. At present day, sarsaparilla is but little used by Eclectics; the Stillingia Sylvatica being found greatly superior to it in medicinal efficacy, is employed in preference. Dose of sarsaparilla in powder, thirty grains, three or four times a day; of the infusion or syrup, four fluidounces.
Off. Prep. -Decoctum Sarsaparillae; Extractum Sarsaparillae Fluidum; Infusum Sarsaparillae; Syrupus Sarsaparillae Compositus.
1883: Scudder: (alterative)The root of smilax officinalis
Preparations: Tincture of Sarsaparilla. Syrup of Sarsaparilla.
Dose: Of the tincture, 3ss. to 3j. Of the syrup 3j. to ?(unclear)
Therapeutic Action: Sarsaparilla is alterative, diaphoretic and diuretic. Diaphoresis most frequently follows its exhibition when the surface is kept warm; but if kept cool, it produces diuresis. Authors, however, suppose these effects are attributable, to a great extent, to the amount of liquid taken with it; for when given in substance, in large doses, nausea, vomiting, and impaired appetite, were the only perceptible effects.In cachectic states of the system, it acts as an alterative improving the appetite, facilitating digestion, augmenting the strength, constitutional and mental capacities of the patient with an improvement or entire relief of the morbid condition for which it was exhibited. It is not employed as a tonic its exhibition being confined almost exclusively to depraved or vitiated states of the system, owing to its reputed alterative powers. Some species possess nutritive and demulcent properties.
1887: Scudder: SARSAPARILLA : COMPOUND SYRUP OF SARSAPARILLA
This is an officinal preparation, and is far superior to that furnished by patent medicine men. Its action is similar to the ones just named, taken in doses of a tablespoonful three times a day.
1898: Felter and Lloyd – SARSAPARILLA (U.S.P.) – SARSAPARILLA
Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage – Sarsaparilla is generally considered as an alterative, though stated by some to possess diuretic, diaphoretic, and emetic properties. Its mode of action, however, is not well understood, as it effects normal changes in the system without any appreciable change in the operation of the various organs. No medicine has, probably, ever passed through so many changes of popularity, having been at various times most highly lauded as an efficient alterative, and as often been pronounced inert. There is no doubt, however, that, when properly prepared, it exerts a favorable influence over the system. The diseases in which it has been more particularly recommended, are inveterate syphilis, pseudo-syphilis, mercurio-syphilis, and struma in all its forms. It has been used in several chronic diseases, as of the skin, as herpes (best associated with sodium sulphite), rheumatic affections (with potassium iodide), passive general dropsy, gonorrhoeal rheumatism, and other depraved conditions of the system where an alterative is required. The decoction, made acid with nitric acid, is serviceable in syphilitic sore throats, and, acidulated with hydrochloric acid, is of some value in chronic hepatic disorders, with torpor. A drink is made in Angostura, which enjoys much reputation there as an alterative beverage. It is made of Rio Negro sarsaparilla, 1 pound; rasped guaiac wood, 6 ounces; aniseed and bruised liquorice root, of each, 2 ounces; mezereon root-bark, 1 ounce; molasses, 1 pound; and 1/2 dozen bruised cloves; pour upon these articles 2 gallons of boiling water, and shake the vessel 3 times a day. As soon as fermentation begins, it may be taken in doses of 4 fluid ounces, 2 or 3 times a day (C. – Trans. Med. Bot. Soc., 1829). At the present day, sarsaparilla is but little used as above. Probably much of good that has been accomplished with sarsaparilla mixtures has been chiefly due to the active ingredients that have been so frequently associated with it. Dose of sarsaparilla, in powder, 30 grains, 3 or 4 times a day; of the infusion or syrup, 4 fluid ounces. Some believe sarsaparilla to contain an active cardiac-sedative principle.
Use the decoction of the dry root of Honduras sarsaparilla. It is alterative, tonic , diaphoretic. It must be given in large doses. Its active principle is a powerful heart sedative.This decoction acidulated with nitric acid is of value in syphilitic sore throats, and when acidulated with hydrochloric acid is useful in chronic affections of the liver, with torpor. Chronic rheumatism following syphilis is also benefited by it. it is of some service in chronic cough, with relaxation of the mucous membranes, especially in syphilitic individuals. Use the above preparation. in chronic skin diseases, as herpes, administer it with sulphite of sodium as follows. Administrated with potassium iodide it sometimes benefits rheumatic patients.
Scrophula, secondary syphilis, cutaneous disease, rheumatic and gouty conditions.
Abnormal conditions requiring elimination of morbid matters from the system through the skin and kidneys. smilax officinalis is alterative, stimulant, and diaphoretic.
The drug sarsaparilla is furnished by the root of a climbing plant of the genus smilax, which prevails over the northern part of South America, the whole of Central America, and the west coast of Mexico . Many varieties contribute the drug of commerce. Its qualities were made known in early European annals from the commendation of explorers of the New World . Monardes (447) is authority for the statement that it was introduced to Seville about 1536 from “New Spain,” but that a different variety soon followed from Honduras . The “Chronicle of Peru,” by Pedro de Cieze de Leon (191), 1553, mentions sarsaparilla as growing in South America , where he obvserved it between 1533 and 1550. It was recommended as a cure for syphilis and acute rheumatism, the Spaniards calling it “an excellent medicine.” In this connection it may be said that the name applied to it was zarza parilla, afterward becoming sarsaparilla. Like other remedies introduced in business channels for commercial purposes from the wonderful New World , sarsaparilla enjoyed a marvellous reputation, which evidently was not interfered with by the fact that it returned great profits to the dealers. A little work issued in its behalf by Girolamo Cardano (123), of Milan , 1559, advocates it most strongly in the direction of the diseases mentioned. It found its way into pharmaceutical stores, where it made an eventful record as a new remedy from the New World . In domestic medicine from the time of its introduction a decoction has been “authoritatively ” considered serviceable as a “blood purifier”. It is not necessary to state that in the form of a sweetened decoction syrup of sarsaparilla has through several decades enjoyed continual conspicuity in the pharmacopeia.
1919: Ellingwood: SMILAX OFFICINALIS: SARSAPARILLA
Synonyms – Jamaica , Honduras or Spanish Sarsaparilla.
Constituents – Parillin, sarsa-saponin, saponin, volatile oil.
Preparations – Extractum Sarsaparillae Fluidum. Fluid Extract of Sarsaparilla.
Dose: from one-half to one dram.
Therapy – This agent is an active eliminant, possessing diuretic and alterative properties to a marked degree. It has long been a popular remedy for the treatment of blood dyscrasias, but is nearly always given in combination with other well known specific alteratives. In combination with potassium iodide, stillingia, corydalis, phytolacca, podophyllum, or other alteratives, it has been given in scrofula and secondary syphilis, and especially in cutaneous diseases depending upon blood dyscrasia, and in rheumatic and gouty conditions, with inactive kidneys irritated from the presence of large quantities of uric acid and the urates. It is not at present in general use.
1921: Lloyd SARSAPARILLA (Sarsaparilla)
Official in every edition of U.S.P., from 1820 to 1910, which directs the root of Smilax medica (Mexican sarsaparilla), or Smilax officinalis, or an undetermined species of Smilax (Hondura sarsaparilla), or Smilax ornata ( Jamaica sarsaparilla).The drug sarsaparilla is furnished by the root of a climbing plant of the genus Smilax, which prevails over the northern part of South America, the whole of Central America, and the west coast of Mexico . Many varieties contribute the drug of commerce. Its qualities were made known in the early European annals from the commendation of explorers of the New World . Monardes (447) is authority for the statement that it was introduced to Seville about 1536 from “New Spain,” but that a different variety soon followed from Honduras . The “Chronicle of Peru,” by Pedro de Cieze de Leon (151) 1553, mentions sarsaparilla as growing in South America , where he observed it between 1533 and 1550. It was recommended as a cure for syphilis and acute rheumatism, the Spaniards calling it “an excellent medicine.” The name then applied to it was zarza parilla, afterward becoming sarsaparilla. Like other remedies introduced in business channels for commercial purposes from the wonderful New World , sarsaparilla enjoyed a marvelous reputation, which was evidently not interfered with by the fact that it returned great profit to the dealers. A small work issued by Girolamo Cardano (123), of Milan , 1559, advocates it most strongly in the direction of the diseases mentioned. Sarsaparilla found its way into pharmaceutical stores, where it made an eventful record as a new remedy from the New World . In domestic medicine, from the time of its introduction, a decoction has been “authoritatively” considered serviceable as a “blood purifier.” It is not necessary to state that in the form of a sweetened decoction, syrup of sarsaparilla has, through several decades, enjoyed continual conspicuity in the U. S. Pharmacopeia.
Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.