Sarsaparilla is a plant that was used at one time to make a very popular non-alcoholic drink, particularly in the southern United States. The part of the plant that was normally used was the root. This was added to sugar and water, with the beverage being bottled and capped before full fermentation could take place. Since it was the root that was used and the process for making it wasn’t dissimilar to making beer, the drink was dubbed “root beer”.
Modern day rootbeer is often made using flavorings, however ‘old fashioned rootbeer’ is still sometimes made with sarsaparilla roots. It is from this that most people are acquainted with sarsaparilla, though perhaps not the plant itself.
It should be noted that the reference to sarsaparilla is being used here for the plant with a scientific name of Smilax ornata and closely related plants (Smilax aristolochiifolia, Smilax febrifuga, Smilax regelii and Smilax officinalis). This distinction is important because another plant that is commonly called wild sarsaparilla is Aralia nudicaulis. This is an entirely different genus.
Although the flavor is quite similar to sarsaparilla and many of the uses are the same, wild sarsaparilla is an unrelated plant of the ginseng family. True sarsaparilla is a member of the lily family. Additionally, wild sarsaparilla is native to the northern US and Canada while true sarsparilla (alternate spelling; sarsparilla) is tropical to semi-tropical.
Sarsaparilla is a perennial vine that is native to Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The vines have prickly stems and it has been known to grow to exceptional lengths of over 150 feet. It is from the growth habit of the plant that the name is derived. In Spanish, which is the common language through most of the area the plant grows naturally, this plant is called zarzaparilla. Zartzia means ‘bramble’ and parilla means ‘little grape vine’. The vine isn’t especially thick, but for a plant that can grow so long, I’m not sure ‘little’ really applies. Still, that is how the name came about.
The plants can form dense thickets and can even grow into shrubby bushes. The leaves are from about an inch and a half to nearly a foot in length, depending on the species, location, and growing conditions, and are heart-shaped. Sarsaparilla produces clusters of greenish-white flowers, which later produces berries that can range from deep red to dark purple or black. The berries are important foods for birds and other wildlife. The spines on the vine are used by the plant to climb, in much the same way that blackberries use their thorns.
The plants are now widely grown in many places in the world and they are popular in India and Asia. In India, sarsaparilla is called maahali and the roots are often pickled and/or added to other ingredients, such as rice, then eaten as a food item. It is eaten in other locations as well.
Sarsaparilla roots, which can be nine feet or more in length, are also used medicinally and American Indian tribes have been using them for well over a thousand years. The root or an extract made from the root has been used medicinally for headaches, fever, coughs, upset stomach, gout, high blood pressure, cancer and as a pain reliever. While it is used to treat a fever, it also induces perspiration and it is a diuretic, so it is useful for people who have water retention problems.
It has been used to treat syphilis, skin eruptions, boils, ulcerations, and acne. For quite some time, it has been used to treat sexual dysfunction and it is still used to treat arthritis.
• As a point of trivia, sarsparilla has a sweet taste and aroma, however it doesn’t have much flavor. To give old fashioned rootbeer most of its flavor, sassafras was added to the sarsparilla root. Wintergreen is also sometimes used as a flavoring, as the flavor is much like sassafras.
Most sarsparilla is still produced in Mexico and while it can be grown in the warmer parts of the US, with adequate care, it isn’t normally practical to do so commercially. Still, many health food and other stores do sell the roots, powdered root and extract in the US and elsewhere.
If you purchase the rootbeer extract, it isn’t difficult to make rootbeer, as follows. Fresh rootbeer is far tastier than store-bought rootbeer. You will need bottles for the rootbeer, but clean plastic bottles with tight-fitting lids work fine.
1 4-ounce bottle rootbeer extract
5 pounds sugar
1 quarter ounce package of dry active yeast
5 gallons water
- Make sure that the water is lukewarm since it is going to be host to yeast. My preference is to use spring water, but this is up to individual taste. Take 1 cup of the warm water, sprinkle the yeast over the top, and allow the cup to sit for about 10 minutes, undisturbed.
- In a large non-aluminum vessel, mix the rest of the water and the sugar. Stir well, until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the rootbeer extract.
- Add the yeasty water and immediately pour the rootbeer into the bottles, allowing at least and inch or two of headspace at the top of each bottle. Cap tightly, then lay the bottles on their sides in a warm place (75 F or so) for a day or two.
- Transfer the bottles to a refrigerated location and store upright.
Note that the rootbeer should be consumed within a week and a half. The main reason for this is that the yeast continues to grow, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol as the byproducts. The pressure in the bottle can build until the bottle bursts. This rootbeer is so good, though, that it usually isn’t much of an issue to drink it all in a week and a half, despite the fact that it sounds like a lot.
Sarsaparilla is a medicinal herb, it is a plant that has value as food, and it can be used to make a wonderful drink. That is to say that this plant has a great deal going for it.
Thank you to @kimdalessandro for the suggestion of writing about sarsaparilla.
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Posted in food and plants and tagged beverage, root beer, rootbeer, sarsaparilla, sarsparilla, smilax, wild plant by rextrulove with 8 comments.