Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Smilax regelii/Smilax Ornata

Jamaican sarsaparilla, Honduran sarsaparilla

By Scott Sheu

            Sarsaparilla is actually a tonic made up of several vine plants from the Smilax family.  However, the vine most associated wit the plant is Smilax regelii.  Sarsaparilla has a long, medicinal history and was one of the first flavorings used in soft drinks in the 19th century. 

Geographic Description

            Varieties of the sarsaparilla are native to tropical and temperate parts of the Western hemisphere, including Mexico, the West Indies, Jamaica, the Caribbean, and South and Central America, as well as the southern United States.

            “Sarsaparilla” comes from the Spanish name “zarzaparillia” which means brambly vine.  The Spanish learned of the plant from the Native Americans and brought the sarsaparilla to Europe.  It has since been spread and popularized throughout the world.

Botanical Description

            The Smilax regelii is a woody, brambled vine that grows up to 50 meters long.  It has tendrils that it uses to climb and glossy green leaves.  It produces small, greenish flowers that bloom in bundles and dark purplish red berries.

Culinary Usage

            The sarsaparilla extract is made from its roots.  By itself, the extract has a slightly bitter anise flavor; sassafras, licorice and wintergreen were often used to temper its flavor (Smith).  As soft drinks became popular in the 19th century, manufacturers often used health claims to promote their products.  Sarsaparilla was an especially popular flavoring, and used most famously in root beer.  Today, the extract is much less used, having been widely replaced by artificial flavorings, though it can still be found in old-fashioned root beer.

Other Usages

            The sarsaparilla roots are believed to have a number of positive attributes medicinally.  Among them, a tea made of the roots was used by the Native Americans to treat colds, coughs, ringworm and other skin diseases (Cichoke).  A tonic made of sarsaparilla was used as both a blood cleanser and a treatment for general disease.  It was also used as an aphrodisiac.

            However, the most popular use of sarsaparilla was for the treatment of syphilis in the 15th-19th centuries.  The extract was so popular as a treatment that American sarsaparilla was being exported throughout the world.  However, its effectiveness in treating venereal diseases was widely debunked in the 18th century, though people continued to use it through the 1800s.



Castleman, Michael, and Michael Castleman. The New Healing Herbs: the Classic Guide to Nature's Best Medicines Featuring the Top 100 Time-tested Herbs. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale, 2001. Print.

Cichoke, Anthony J. Secrets of Native American Herbal Remedies: a Comprehensive Guide to the Native American Tradition of Using Herbs and the Mind/body/spirit Connection for Improving Health and Well-being. New York: Avery, 2001. Google Books. Web.

Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.