Sarsaparilla: A Cowboy Spring Tonic
In 19th Century America, people used tonics, purgatives, and cleansers to treat not only themselves, but also their livestock and neighbors, to “eliminate poison from the blood and tissues, purify metabolic toxins left after a hard winter, and rehabilitate the body for the rest of the year.” These “medicines” were colorful and sometimes noxious remedies made from whatever plant, animal, and mineral products that were available. One of these —Sarsaparilla—is still popular today.
Sarsaparilla, or Zarzaparilla, is the common name of a tonic beverage decocted from the roots of the Smilax medica plant. The Spanish roots of the common name are sarza for “bramble” and parilla for “little vine.” Most cowboy movies and TV shows from the 50s and 60s included “Sassparilla” on the saloon menu, along with rot-gut whiskey for wandering gunslingers and ranch hands. The two drinks have very opposite physical effects, so the next time you go to your saloon, knowing the herbal effects of sarsaparilla might make your choice easier.
Native to the jungles of Central America, the Smilax medica plant is a long green, thorny hardwood vine. Indian healers long ago found it surprisingly strengthening and energizing for those who brewed up the root and drank the extract.
Some History of the Tonic:
American cowboys and ranchers in the 1800’s learned of sarsaparilla from the Indian and Spanish peoples they worked with. The herb had been brought to Europe in the 16th century much earlier by returning Spanish soldiers as a cure for syphilis. This of course was not true; but with the plant’s general strengthening and energizing benefits, sarsaparilla was a useful and beneficial treatment for a many conditions.
In the mid-1800s in America, The patent medicine “quacks” claimed Sarsaparilla would improve everything that might ail a person. These were the M.D.’s of that era, known for their fondness for mercury, or “quicksilver” to cure anything and everything. Sarsaparilla was one of the relatively safer and effective patent remedies available.
The bestselling brand of sarsaparilla was Ayer’s, which became famous through massive advertising in 1841 by James Cook Ayer, an MD from the University of Pennsylvania. He began compounding remedies in the back room of his drugstore in Lowell, Mass. By 1870, he was advertising Sarsaparilla in 1,900 newspapers and magazines. He filled hundreds of thousands of bottles daily, labeled them with paper from his own mills, and shipped them to the entire world on his own railroad.
The Connecticut State Agricultural Station, after analyzing Ayer’s medicinal sarsaparilla and eight others, found them to be “of a most complex composition, containing not only sarsaparilla, but yellow dock, stillingia, burdock, licorice, sassafras, mandrake, buckthorn, senna, black cohosh, pokeroot, wintergreen, cascara, sagrada, cinchona bark, prickly ash, glycerin, iodides of potassium and iron, and alcohol.” Although each of these ingredients has medicinal properties, the Journal of the American Medical Association argued that sarsaparilla was “so compounded as to be useless, though generally harmless.” Note, however, at the time, that endorsements for mercury and heroin as cure-alls were also being sold.
What’s in Sarsaparilla?
The root of the Smilax medica plant contains biochemicals called saponins, which include phytosterols. Phyto means plant, and sterols are steroids in a plant or vegetable. Plant hormones are not identical to human hormones, but close enough so that the liver doesn’t have to work as hard to produce actual human hormones.
Smilax sterols are close to human testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. These hormones get depleted by many forces in stressful lives, and a plant sterol liquor, soup, or tea would feel like a tonic for anyone exhausted or injured. Smilax has been proven by herbalists and physicians to be an alterative, meaning a blood purifier, and an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body adapt to stressful conditions.
Since our hormones affect every tissue and organ, a list of hormone-like effects supported by plant sterols would be a long one. You might read that “sarsaparilla is good for gout, rheumatism, colds, fevers, and catarrhal problems, flatulence, skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis, scrofula, ringworm, purifies the uro-genital tract, has tonic action on the sexual organs, and is said to excite the passions, making men more virile and women more sensuous….” However, it should not be taken during pregnancy and lactation and should be avoided by men with prostate disorders, people with kidney disorders and those with sensitive stomachs.
How to Make It:
The Sarsaparilla saloon beverage was distilled from the root of Smilax medica. Since ancient healers and local farmers were not technically able to distill alcohol, their decoctions involved boiling the roots for hours, and then mashing them and mixing the soup with a sweetener and an energizer like cayenne pepper or chilies.
These additives were not only for taste. A sweetener would help the sterols be absorbed easily into the digestive system, and the pepper would increase the circulation in the membranes of the stomach and duodenum, helping the medicines be absorbed. Aztec stimulants of cacao were served as peppery aphrodisiac tonics for this same reason.
The Smilax root tastes bland and creamy. Make a mix like cocoa, mixing the powdered root and steeping it in hot non-scalded almond milk or rice milk for half an hour. Use about a tablespoon of powdered Smilax root per mug, and sweetening it to taste with agave nectar or honey. Add some Cayenne pepper to give it a little bite. Drink a mug of this hot tonic every morning for a week when the seasons change and see what you think of Indian herbalism.
2. The Energetics of Western Herbs: A Materia Medica Integrating Western and Chinese Herbal Therapeutics by Peter Holmes, pg 692-694
For more info, call Optimal Health Associates of Reno at 775-284-4700.