SARSAPARILLA, Similax officinalis

We all remember those first cowboy movies we watched as kids. All the tough, older cowboys would walk into a saloon and order their drinks and then they would tell the bartender to give a glass of sarsaparilla to the youngest cowboy who wasn’t old enough to drink liquor. For hundreds of years, sarsaparilla was the soft drink everyone drank. The sarsaparilla drink was made from roots. From that old-time drink came the birth of what we now call root beer. I remember when I was a young boy in our home, and at the ranch we would gather dark bottles. When we had enough we’d scrub out the washtub and we would make up a batch of root beer. Sure was good!

Similax sarsaparilla was another herb that came from the New World. It was brought to Europe by the conquerors. It was used by the natives as a healing herb for rheumatism. It was also used for those who developed gout. It was used for abscesses; it was widely acclaimed as a blood purifier or as a tonic; it was made into a poultice for an old, running ulcer and it was even used by many of the natives to treat syphilis. With all these claims, sarsaparilla was in great demand, and much of it was shipped to the Old World.

By the 1800s, sarsaparilla reached great popularity. Even today, sarsaparilla is still used for colds, flu, catarrh, skin eruptions, fevers, as a blood purifier, for the kidneys and for women’s problems. It is one of the herbs that is used in Grandma’s herbal Menopause formula.

Sarsaparilla is a tropical perennial vine. They say it was discovered in New Granada or the northeast tip of South America. There are many species of sarsaparilla. It can be found growing wild from the Southern part of the United States, all through Mexico and Central America and through most of South America. However, most folks say that the best sarsaparilla is found in Honduras in Central America.

Sarsaparilla got its name from the Spanish word “sarza,” which means “bramble,” or “stickers,” and ‘parilla,” which means “vine.” This vine is covered with little thorns or stickers, which makes it very hard to gather. The root or rhizome is the part of the plant that is used. The root, which will sometimes grow past 8 feet long, has a heavy bark which is brownish or grayish with a porous center section. The roots that have a deep, orangish tint are the best. These rhizomes or roots run horizontally, just under the surface of the ground and have many long, thin rootlets. The stalk or stem is woody and will grow erect off the rhizome into a stickery vine with tendrils that will climb a tree or a plant, or anything that is handy. The ovate leaf with pointed tips grows alternately on the stalk or vine and is almost evergreen. The flowers are a yellow-green and grow in umbels or flat-top bunches and mature into small red berries.

When I was attending an herb school, our instructor told of his mother giving all her children their annual spring tonic. She lined them all up and gave them a lot of tea made of mostly real strong sarsaparilla and a couple more herbs. She said it was to clean out all of the old toxins left in their bodies from a long winter. He said they might throw up a little and they might have a little diarrhea, but they sure felt better in the long-run. Then he smiled and said, “No one in the family ever got sick.”

We live in a society of abundance. We feast on unhealthy, rich, fat, overcooked, adulterated foods that are hard to digest. We stuff ourselves with sweets and goodies. Our bodies become fat, constipated and toxic. We expect to take a drug or medicine that will correct our over-indulgence. We really need to cleanse out our bodies, use herbs, eat fruits and vegetables and exercise more.

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