This section is from the book "Materia Medica And Therapeutics: An Introduction to the National Treatment of Disease", by John Mitchell Bruce. Also available from Amazon: The pharmacology and therapeutics of the materia medica.
Sarsae Radix-Jamaica Sarsaparilla.-The dried root of Smilax officinalis. Native of Central America ; imported from Jamaica.
Characters.-Roots not thicker than a goose-quill, generally many feet in length, reddish-brown, covered with rootlets, and folded in bundles about eighteen inches long; scentless; taste mucilaginous, feebly bitter, faintly acrid.
Substances resembling Sarsa: Senega, which is twisted; Hemidesmus, cracked transversely.
Composition.-Sarsaparilla contains a small quantity of volatile oil, a colourless crystalline neutral principle, smilacin, C18H30O6, resin, starch, mucilage, etc.
Impurities.-Inferior kinds, and Dulcamara.
Decoctum Sarsae. 1 in 8. Dose, 2 to 10 fl.oz.
Decoctum Sarsae Compositum. Sarsaparilla, 2 1/2 oz.; Sassafras, 1/4 oz.; Guaiacum Wood, 1/4 oz.; Liquorice, 1/4 oz.; Mezereon, 60 gr.; Water, 30 oz. Lose, 2 to 10 fl.oz.
Extractum Sarsae Liquidum. 2 in 1. Lose, 1 to 4 fl.dr.
The physiological action of sarsaparilla is unknown, the diaphoretic and diuretic effects which follow large draughts of its fluid preparations being generally referred to the water alone. It is tolerated in very large doses by the stomach. Smilacin is excreted in the urine.
Great diversity of opinion exists as to the value of sarsaparilla therapeutically. Whilst the pharmacological evidence is negative, as we have seen, the clinical evidence is entirely discordant, some authorities considering it an alterative drug of extraordinary value in syphilis, chronic skin-disease, and rheumatism, others entirely worthless. On the one hand, many cases of these diseases are greatly benefited by careful treatment, with rest, good food, baths, and abundance of warm fluids alone; and, on the other hand, sarsaparilla is almost always combined with other drugs, including guaiacum, sassafras, mezereon, iodide of potassium, and mercury. If given, it is indicated in old standing cases of syphilis in feeble subjects, who have already suffered from the abuse of mercury or iodine, and the compound decoction should be freely used.