SARSAPARILLA, a popular drug, prepared from the long fibrous roots of several species of the genus Smilax, indigenous to Central America, and extending from the southern and western coasts of Mexico to Peru. These plants grow in swampy forests, and, being dioecious and varying much in the form of leaf in different individuals, are imperfectly known to botanists, only two species having been identified with certainty. These are Smilax officinalis and 5. medica, which yield respectively the so-called " Jamaica " and the Mexican varieties. They are large perennial climbers growing from short thick underground stems, from which rise numerous semi-woody flexuous angular stems, bearing large alternate stalked long-persistent and prominently net-veined leaves, from the base of which spring the tendrils which support the plant. The genus is a member of the natural order Smiliaceae, and constitutes the tribe Smilacoidide, characterized by its climbing habit, net-veined leaves and dioecious flowers.
The introduction of sarsaparilla into European medicine dates from the middle of the 16th century. Monardes, a physician of Seville, records that it was brought to that city from New Spain about 1536-1545. Sarsaparilla must have come into extensive use soon afterwards, for John Gerard, about the close of the century, states that it was imported into England from Peru in great abundance.
When boiled in water the root affords a dark extractive matter, the quantity of extract yielded by the root being used as a criterion of its quality. Boiling alcohol extracts from the root a neutral substance in the form of crystalline prisms, which crystallize in scales from boiling water. This body, which is named parillin, is allied to the saponin of quillaia bark, from which it differs in not exciting sneezing. The presence in the root of starch, resin and oxalate of lime is revealed by the use of the microscope. Sarsaparilla still has a popular reputation as an " alterative," but it has been examined and tested in every manner known to modern medical science, and is professionally regarded as " pharmacologically inert and therapeutically useless."
The varieties of sarsaparilla met with in commerce are the following: Jamaica, Lima, Honduras, Guatemala, Guayaquil and Mexican. Of these the first-named yields the largest amount of extract, viz. from 33 to 44%; it is the only kind admitted into the British pharmacopoeia. On the Continent, especially in Italy, the varieties having a white starchy bark, like those of Honduras and Guatemala, are preferred. " Jamaica " sarsaparilla derives its name from the fact that Jamaica was at one time the emporium for sarsaparilla, which was brought thither from Honduras, New Spain and Peru. Sarsaparilla is grown to a small extent in Jamaica, and is occasionally exported thence to the London market in small quantities, but its orange colour and starchy bark are so different in appearance from the thin reddish-brown bark of the genuine drug, that it does not meet with a ready sale. The Jamaica sarsaparilla of trade is collected on the Cordilleras of Chiriqui, in Panama, where the plant yielding it grows at an elevation of 4000 to 8000 ft. _ The root bark is reddish-brown, thin and shrivelled, and there is an abundance of rootlets, which are technically known by the name of " beard." Lima sarsaparilla resembles the Jamaica kind, but the roots are of a paler brown colour. In Honduras sarsaparilla the roots are less wrinkled, and the bark is whiter and more starchy, than in the Jamaica kind. It is exported from Belize. Guatemala sarsaparilla is very similar to that of Honduras, but has a more decided orange hue, and the bark shows a tendency to split off. Guayaquil sarsaparilla is obtained chiefly in the valley of Alausi, on the western side of the equatorial Andes. The bark is thick and furrowed, and of a pale fawn colour internally ; the rootlets are few, and the root itself is of larger diameter than in the other kinds. Sometimes there is attached to the rootstock a portion of stem, which is round and not prickly, differing in these respects from that of Smilax officinalis, which is square and prickly. Mexican sarsaparilla has slender, shrivelled roots nearly devoid of rootlets. It is collected on the eastern slope of the Mexican Andes throughout the year, and is the produce of Smilax medica.
The collection of sarsaparilla root is a very tedious business; a single root takes an Indian half a day or sometimes even a day and a half to unearth. The roots extend horizontally in the ground on all sides for about 9 ft., and from these the earth has to be carefully scraped away and other roots cut through where such come across them. A plant four years old will yield 16 Ib of fresh root, and a well-grown one from 32 to 64 ft, but more than half the weight is lost in drying. The more slender roots are generally left, and the stem is cut down near to the ground, the crown of the root being covered with leaves and earth. Thus treated, the plant continues to grow, and roots may again be cut from it after the lapse of two years, but the yield will be smaller and the roots more slender and less starchy. In some varieties, as the Guayaquil and Mexican, the whole plant, including the rootstock, is pulled up.
In several species of Smilax the roots become thickened here and there into large tuberous swellings 4 to 6 in. long, and I or 2 in. in thickness. These tubers form a considerable article of trade in China, but are used to a limited extent only on the Continent, under the name of China root, although introduced into Europe about the same time as sarsaparilla. China root is obtained from 5. China and is a native of Cochin China, China and Japan, and extensively imported into India, also from S. glabra and S. lanceaefolia, natives of India and China, the tubers of which closely resemble those of S. China. A similar root is yielded by 5. pseudo-China and S. tamnoides in the United States from New Jersey southwards; by 5. balbisiana, in the West Indies, and by S. Japicanga and 5. syringoides, and 5. brasiliensis in South America. The name of Indian sarsaparilla is given to the roots of Hemidesmus indicus, an Asclepiadaceous plant indigenous to India. These roots are readily distinguished from those of true sarsaparilla by their loose cracked bark and by their odour and taste, recalling those of melilot.
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Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)