Source, Etc

Several varieties of sarsaparilla are imported but the one known as Jamaica sarsaparilla is the most esteemed in this country. This variety is obtained from Smilax ornata, Hooker filius (N.O. Smilaceoe), a climbing plant with woody stems ascending lofty trees and springing from a stout, knotty rhizome. From the rhizome slender cylindrical roots are thrown off horizontally and creep for many feet a few inches below the surface of the earth. In collecting the roots they are first laid bare and then cut off near the rhizome. After they have been dried they are made into bundles; a number of these are placed upright and bound with wire into a disc-shaped bale.

The plant is a native of Central America (Costa Rica). The root was formerly exported via Jamaica, hence the designation ' Jamaica ' sarsaparilla, but it is now sent chiefly to New York, and thence to England.


Jamaica sarsaparilla occurs in bundles about half a metre long and 12 cm. in diameter, weighing about a kilogramme. Each bundle consists of numerous long, slender roots about 3 mm. in thickness, doubled up and bound loosely with one of the same roots. These usually have a dark reddish brown colour, are much shrunken and furrowed longitudinally, and bear tolerably numerous branching rootlets. They are tough and flexible, not breaking easily even when bent double. The transverse section exhibits a narrow, dark reddish brown cortex surrounding a central stele, which consists of a ring of yellowish wood with large, radially arranged vessels and a white, starchy pith.

The characters of the root are, however, somewhat variable, and it is not difficult to find roots that are paler in colour, less shrunken and more starchy than those described; even the same root may vary at different points. But the dark reddish brown colour, the shrunken cortex, the presence of fibrous rootlets (technically known as ' beard ') are regarded as important characters of good Jamaica sarsaparilla. The bundles are always free from the rhizome (' chump ').

Fig. 207.   Bundles of Jamaica Sarsaparilla. Reduced.

Fig. 207. - Bundles of Jamaica Sarsaparilla. Reduced.

The drug has no odour, and only a slightly bitter taste.

The student should observe

(a) The dark red shrunken cortex, which does not exhibit transverse cracks,

(b) The numerous wiry rootlets,

(c) The transverse section; and should compare the drug with Indian sarsaparilla (see p. 340) which is marked with transverse cracks, is rigid and tortuous, and has a distinctive aroma.


The chief constituent in Jamaica, Honduras and probably other sarsaparillas is sarsasaponin, C44H76O20.7H1O, a crystalline glucoside yielding by hydrolysis sarsasapogenin and dextrose. According to Power and Salway this is the only definite saponin-glucoside in Jamaica sarsaparilla, which also contains sarsapic acid (a crystalline dicarboxylic acid), dextrose, fatty acids, sitosterol-d-glucoside, resin, etc. Parillin and smilacin, formerly cited as constituents, are probably mixtures. It has been assumed that sarsaparilla is practically devoid of therapeutic value, but this has by no means been proved. Like other drugs containing saponins it possesses haemolytic properties. Kobert has shown that the haemolytic action of Honduras sarsaparilla is about eight times that of Jamaica. The drug contains also varying quantities of starch; it yields from 10 to 20 per cent. of aqueous extract, and about 7 per cent. of ash.


Sarsaparilla has been administered as an alterative in syphilis, chronic skin diseases, and rheumatism, but great diversity of opinion exists as to its therapeutic value.


Several other varieties of sarsaparilla are imported into the English market; the following are the most important: -

Fig. 208.   Bundle of Honduras Sarsaparilla. Reduced. (Pereira.)

Fig. 208. - Bundle of Honduras Sarsaparilla. Reduced. (Pereira).

1. Honduras Sarsaparilla, the botanical origin of which is unknown. The drug is imported from British Honduras in serons (see fig. 2, b) containing a number of bundles about 75 cm. long and 5 or 6 cm. wide, much longer and narrower therefore than the bundles of the Jamaica variety; they are sometimes closely whipped round or sometimes loosely bound with a long root. The roots are distinguished from those of the Jamaica variety by their pale yellowish or brownish colour, and by their less shrunken, more plump and starchy appearance; they have generally fewer rootlets attached and are always free from rhizome. The section exhibits a pale, starchy cortex, usually thicker than that of Jamaica sarsaparilla, but a similar stele.

This variety is largely used on the Continent, where it is generally preferred.

2. Lima Sarsaparilla is imported from Panama in bundles about 60 cm. long and about 7 cm. in diameter, loosely folded, bound with a root, and made into bales similar to those of Jamaica sarsaparilla, each containing about 300 bundles and weighing nearly 100 kilograms. This drug shows a close resemblance to Jamaica sarsaparilla, and indeed can only be distinguished with certainty by the different packing and by the anatomical characters of the cells of the endodermis and exodermis, which in certain cases constitute a most valuable means of identifying and distinguishing these drugs.

3. Guayaquil Sarsaparilla is imported in rectangular pressed bales containing a number of flattish bundles about 50 cm. long and 15 cm. wide, containing the knotty rhizome and portions of the stout, round aerial stems. Sometimes the root is imported loose in bales. It has a mahogany brown colour, is usually larger than the Jamaica, not so much furrowed and with less numerous rootlets.

4. Vera Cruz or Mexican Sarsaparilla is obtained from S. medica, Schlechtendal et Chamisso. Both rhizome and roots are collected and dried, the drug not being made up into bales. It consists of a number of rhizomes, to each of which are attached numerous, straight dull greyish brown, shrunken roots, laid together. Latterly the roots deprived of the rhizomes have been exported. Like Lima sarsaparilla the variety is well characterised by the form of the cells of the endo-dermis and exodermis.

Fig. 209.   Bundle of Vera Cruz Sarsaparilla. (Pereira.)

Fig. 209. - Bundle of Vera Cruz Sarsaparilla. (Pereira).

5. Native Jamaica Sarsaparilla is obtained from plants presumably of S. officinalis, Humboldt, Bonpland et Kunth, cultivated on the island of Jamaica. This truly Jamaican sarsaparilla, commercially known as ' native ' Jamaica, must be carefully distinguished from the ordinary Jamaica (or, better, Costa Rica) sarsaparilla. It arrives packed loose in bales, and is of a pale reddish or greyish brown colour. The root bears scattered, rather stout rootlets, and exhibits in transverse section a pale cortex separated by a distinct line from a rather darker stele. These characters sufficiently distinguish 'native' Jamaica sarsaparilla from the Costa Rica drug.


A considerable variety of roots have from time to time found their way into the European markets under the name of sarsaparilla; e.g. roots of Philodendron sp., rhizomes of Pteris sp.,&c; most are readily distinguishable from the genuine drug.