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Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Smilax aristolochiifolia, also known as gray sarsaparilla, Mexican sarsaparilla, sarsaparilla, is a species in the genus Smilax and the family Smilacaceae, native to Mexico and Central America.

Other Synonyms include:  Ecuadorian Sarsaparilla, Honduras Sarsaparilla, Jamaican Sarsaparilla, Liseron Épineux, Liseron Piquant, Mexican Sarsaparilla, Salsaparilha, Salsepareille, Salsepareille d’Europe, Salsepareille du Honduras, Salsepareille du Mexique, Sarsa, Sarsaparillae Radix, Sarsaparillewurzel, Smilax, Smilax Aristolochaefolia, Smilax Aristolochiaefolii, Smilax aristolochiifolia, Smilax china, Smilax febrifuga, Smilax medica, Smilax officinalis, Smilax ornate, Smilax regelii, Zarzaparrilla.

It is widely used as a traditional medicine to treat many illnesses, and its medicinal uses are now more important than its culinary ones, however, it is still used as a flavouring for beverages, dairy desserts, baked goods and sweets.

Sarsaparilla was once a main ingredient for flavouring root beer and how many children of the fifties were brought up with American TV cowboy programmes, where the hero [probably the Lone Ranger] would stroll into the local bar and ask for a sarsaparilla – and all the local wags would laugh their heads off because they knew it was non alcoholic.  But our hero always won, so Sarsaparilla clearly has some advantage over warm lager. 

Homonyms include: Indian or false sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus, Family: Apocyanaceae). There are reports that this false sarsaparilla is a common impurity found in sarsaparilla preparations. False sarsaparilla contains none of the possibly active chemicals found in true sarsaparilla.


Sarsaparilla is a perennial woody climber with tendrils, thin branches and extended ovate leaves that grows about 4 to 5 meters vertically.


Its paper-like leaves are pinnate veined, leathery and alternatively arranged.  The leaves' width ranges from 10 to 30 cm and the petioles' length is about 5 cm. It is known for its small red berries with 2 or 3 seeds and small green flowers. The flowers are radially symmetrical, dioecious and have umbel inflorescence of 12 flowers. The berries are produced in the autumn or in the late summer and stay intact through the winter for animals and birds to eat. Thus the pollination occurs as the unharmed seeds are found in the faeces.

The surface of the stem is smooth; it is also bent and has thorns at the joints. The hairy roots of sarsaparilla are fibrous and may have few rootlets growing out. They have a stiff surface and are deep-rooted, growing from 2 to 2.5 meters.   The colour of the roots ranges from brownish grey to black.

Sarsaparilla is a persistent plant; even when most roots are cut off from the stem, roots will grow years later but will be slender and less starchy.


Sarsaparilla is common in wooded areas because it uses its tendrils to climb up the trees.  It is widely found in temperate, swampy and warm areas. 

Sarsaparilla is also found in high elevations; in Nuevo León, Mexico, it is found at elevation of 1,760 meters, in Oaxaca at 100 meters, in Hacienda San Jose, Santa Ana at 850 to 1100 meters.


Smilax aristolochiifolia is native to Mexico and Central America, in particular the Mesoamerican region, especially in Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala. In North America, sarsaparilla originates in Southern Mexico, being found primarily in the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Yucatán, Nuevo León, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Quintana Roo. In El Salvador, sarsaparilla is located in Hacienda San Jose, Santa Ana.

Medicinal uses

The observations provide the papers that show the main uses of the plant, however, traditionally Sarsaparilla has been used for

  • Psoriasis. And other skin diseases.
  • Digestive problems. Sarsaparilla may improve appetite and digestion.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Fluid retention/oedema.
  • Syphilis.
  • Leprosy
  • Gonorrhea - Mexican and Honduran sarsaparillas are used for treating gonorrhea, fevers, and digestive disorders.

The plant is assumed to achieve much of its action by being an antibacterial and an anti-parasitic.

Sarsaparilla, also known as Smilax Glabra Rhizome (SGR), is a natural dietary supplement widely used in food-making and health care, based on its capability in detoxicating, clearing heat and relieving dampness.

Some SGR-containing beverages, foods and dietary supplements are purchasable in Southeast Asia and Northern America.

Patients with dermatitis, syphilis or gouty arthritis in Southeast Asia have benefited from the treatment of SGR-containing herbal mixtures for a long history. Currently there are also growing scientific evidences reporting its therapeutical potential for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation , liver injury, hyperinsulinemia and cancer. 
PMCID: PMC4351248   PMID: 25742000


References and further reading

  • Tse TW (2003) Use of common Chinese herbs in the treatment of psoriasis. Clin Exp Dermatol. 28: 469–475.
  • Jiang J, Wu F, Lu J, Lu Z, Xu Q (1997) Anti-inflammatory activity of the aqueous extract from Rhizoma smilacis glabrae. Pharmacol Res. 36: 309–314.
  • Gunn J, Che CT, Farnsworth N (2013) Diabetes and natural products In: Watson RR, Preedy RV, editor. Bioactive food as dietary interventions for diabetes. Elservia, Inc.; pp. 381–394.
  • Sa F, Gao JL, Fung KP, Zheng Y, Lee SM (2008) Anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic effect of Smilax glabra Roxb. extract on hepatoma cell lines. Chem Biol Interact. 171: 1–14.
  • Jiang J, Xu Q (2003) Immunomodulatory activity of the aqueous extract from rhizome of Smilax glabra in the later phase of adjuvant-induced arthritis in rats. J Ethnopharmacol. 85: 53–59.

Related observations