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Sarsaparilla. U. S. Sarsaparilla. Sarsap.

Related entry: Hemidesmus

"The dried root of Smilax medica Chamisso and Schlechtendal, known in commerce as Mexican Sarsaparilla; or Smilax officinalis Kunth, or an undetermined species of Smilax, known in commerce as Honduras Sarsaparilla; or Smilax ornata Hooker filius, known in commerce as Jamaica Sarsaparilla (Fam. Liliaceae)." U. S. "The dried root of Smilax ornata, Hook. f. Imported from Costa Rica and commonly known as Jamaica sarsaparilla" Br. 1898.

Sarsae Radix, Br. 1898; Jamaica Sarsaparilla; Salsepareille, Fr. Cod.; Radix Sarsaparillae, P. G.; Sarsaparille, Sarsaparilla, G; Salsapariglia, It.; Zarzaparrilla (Raiz de), Sp.

The medicinal species of smilax grow in Mexico, Guatemala, and the warm latitudes of South America. The roots are very long and slender, and originate in great numbers from a common head or rhizome, from which the stems of the plant rise. The whole root with the rhizome is usually dug up, and as brought into market exhibits not unfrequently portions of the stems attached, sometimes several inches in length. The commercial sarsaparillas are conveniently divided into the mealy and non-mealy sarsaparillas. The first class comprises especially the Honduras, Guatemala, and Brazilian varieties; the second the Jamaica, Mexican and Guayaquil sarsaparillas. A very convenient key for distinguishing the commercial sarsaparillas by certain anatomical characters has been devised by Luerssen in his Handbuch der Medicin-pharm. Botanik, ii, 404.

All the species of Smilax are climbing or trailing plants, with prickly stems—a character expressed in the name of the medicine, which is derived from two Spanish words (zarsa parilla), signifiying a small thorny vine.

The official species of smilax are as follows:

S. medica, has an angular stem, armed with straight prickles at the joints, and a few hooked ones in the intervals. The leaves are smooth, bright green on both sides, shortly acuminate, five-nerved, with the veins prominent beneath. They vary much in form, the lower being cordate-auriculate-hastate, the upper cordate-ovate. In the old leaves the petiole and midrib are armed with straight subulate prickles. The inflorescence is an umbel of from eight to twelve flowers, with a smooth axillary peduncle and pedicels about three lines long.

The Mexican or Vera Cruz sarsaparilla is derived from this species. Although sometimes in bundles, it commonly comes in large, rather loose bales, weighing about two hundred pounds, bound with cords or leather thongs, and usually containing the roots folded upon themselves, and separately packed. These, as in the Honduras sarsaparilla, consist of a head or caudex with numerous long radicles, which, however, are somewhat smaller than in that variety, and have a thinner bark. They are often also much coiled with earth. It contains but little starch and has quadrangular endodermal cells, with thickened walls, and more or less oval lumen. It was formerly little esteemed; but, from the acrid taste which it possesses, it is probably of equal value to the other kinds.

S. officinalis.—In this species the stem is twining, angular, smooth, and prickly; the young shoots are unarmed; the leaves ovate-oblong, acute, cordiform, five- or seven-nerved, coriaceous, smooth, twelve inches long and four or five broad, with footstalks an inch long, smooth, and furnished with tendrils. The young leaves are lanceolate-oblong, acuminate, and three-nerved. Large quantities of the root are said to be sent down the Magdalena River to Mompox and Carthagena.

It is the source of Honduras Sarsaparilla. It is brought from the bay of Honduras and comes in bundles two or three feet long, composed of several roots folded lengthwise, and secured in a compact form by a few circular turns. These are packed in bales imperfectly covered with skins, each bale containing one hundred pounds or more. The roots are usually connected at one extremity in large numbers in a common head, to which portions of the stems are also attached. In some bundles are many small fibers, either lying- loose or still adhering to the roots. The roots externally are a dirty grayish or reddish-brown; the cortical portion beneath the epidermis often appears amylaceous when broken.

S. ornata Hook.—This plant was recognized by both Flückiger and Hanbury, and by Bentley and Trimen as S. officinalis, and was described by Lemaire with a query to it to express his doubtfulness of its specific distinctness. The species is, however, now generally accepted. The plant has large seven-nerved leaves resembling S. officinalis. It is especially distinguished by the young leaves being mottled with white. (See Botanical Magazine, 1889, cxv, 7054.)

This species yields Jamaica or red sarsaparilla of foreign writers, although but little known by the latter name in the United States. It is collected in Central America, especially in Costa Rica, and it owes its name to the fact that it has been largely exported to Europe through the island of Jamaica. As found in commerce it is in rolls from twelve to eighteen inches long by four or five in thickness, composed exclusively of long slender many-radicled roots very loosely held together by a few turns. Sometimes it is pressed into large bales. It is further to be distinguished from Honduras sarsaparilla by its dark color, the greater abundance of coarse rootlets, the less quantity of starch, its relatively thick cortex, and its less sharp taste. Externally it is also redder than is commonly the case with Honduras sarsaparilla. Kobert (P. J., 1912, lxxxviii, p. 779), has found that the ornata has only one-eighth of the hemolytic power of the Vera Cruz sarsaparilla, which he takes as a test of its saponin content. He believes the plant is unfit for medical use.

Cultivated Jamaica Sarsaparilla (Roja Inglesa) occurs in thick short rolls and is especially characterized by its yellow-brown or orange color. According to W. B. Hemsley, Hooker's I. P. pl. 2589, it is the product of S. utilis Hemsley, a species related to S. ornata, from which it differs by its long pediculated simple umbels.

An investigation by Power and Salway (Chem. News, 1914, p. 56) showed the presence of the following constituents in Jamaica sarsaparilla: a glucoside, sarsaponin, C44H76O207H20, which upon hydrolysis yields sarsapogenin, C26H42O3, and dextrose; sitosterol-d-glucoside, C27H46O; sitosterol, C27H46O; stigmasterol, C30H50O; sarsapic acid (a new dicarboxylic acid), C6H4O6, and a mixture of fatty acids, including palmitic, stearic, behenic, oleic and linolic acids. The alcoholic extract contained acetyl-d-glucoside and potassium nitrate was also found.

Another variety is the Caracas sarsaparilla, brought in large quantities from La Guayra. It is in oblong packages, of about one hundred pounds, surrounded with broad strips of hide, which are connected laterally with thongs of the same material, leaving much of the root exposed. The roots, as in the last variety, are separately packed, but more closely and carefully. The radicles are often very amylaceous internally, in this respect resembling the following variety.

S. papyracea is said to have foliage like S. officinalis, with a multiangular stem, with squamiform thorns on the angles, and petioles which are vaginate for one-fourth their length. It is thought to be the source of Para sarsaparilla which is no longer found in commerce.

The Brazilian, or, as it is called in Europe, the Lisbon or Para sarsaparilla, is not very plentiful in commerce. It comes from the ports of Para and Maranham, in cylindrical bundles from three to five feet in length by about a foot in thickness, bound about by close circular turns of a very flexible stem, and consisting of unfolded roots, destitute of caudex (rhizome) and stems, and having a few radical fibers. It was also shown in the Brazilian exhibit in the Centennial Exhibition, neatly cut and tied into bundles about a foot long and eight inches in diameter. It is the variety of which Hancock speaks as celebrated throughout South America by the name of Sarsa of the Rio Negro, and was considered one of the most valuable varieties of the drug. It is distinguished by the thinness of its cortex, the large amount of starch that it contains and its large, radially elongated endodermal cells. It was said by Martius to be derived from Smilax syphilitica; but Hancock considers that portion of it which comes from the Rio Negro, and is shipped at Para, as the product of an undescribed species, certainly not S. syphilitica. As determined by Richard, it is the product of the S. papyracea of Poiret.

The variety described by Bentley under the name of Guatemala sarsaparilla was collected in the province of Sacatapeques, about ninety miles from the sea. It is in cylindrical bundles about two feet eight inches long by four inches in diameter, composed of separate roots, arranged in parallel order, without rootstalk, and bound together by a few turns of the flexible stem of a monocotyledonous plant. The bundles resemble the Brazilian in arrangement, but are much less compact. It is amylaceous, has considerable acridity, and is probably one of the most efficient varieties. Bentley ascribes it to S. papyracea. For a particular description of the root, see P. J., xii, 472.

Guayaquil sarsaparilla, according to Spruce, grows in valleys on the western slopes of the equatorial Andes. It is usually not in bundles, but carelessly packed in bales. "The rhizome and a portion of the stem are often present, the latter being round and prickly. The root is dark, large, and coarse-looking, with a good deal of fiber. The bark is furrowed, rather thick, and not mealy in the slenderer portions of the root, which is near the rootstalk; but, as the root becomes stout, so its bark becomes smoother, thicker, and amylaceous, exhibiting when cut a fawn-colored or pale yellow interior."

The root (rhizome) of Smilax China, a native of China and Japan, has been employed under the name of China Root for similar purposes with the official sarsaparilla. As it occurs in commerce, it is in pieces from three to eight inches long and an inch or two thick, usually somewhat flattened, more or less knotty, often branched, of a brownish or grayish-brown color externally, whitish or of a light flesh-color internally, without odor, and of a taste flat at first, but afterwards very slightly bitterish and somewhat acrid, like that of sarsaparilla. The root of Smilax aspera is said to be employed in the south of Europe as a substitute for sarsaparilla; but it has little reputation. The East India sarsaparilla, which was at one time referred to this species of smilax, is the product of Hemidesmus indicus. (See Hemidesmus.)

Under the name of Raiz de china de Mexico, the Mexican Pharmacopoeia recognizes the root of S. rotundifolia as diaphoretic and depurative, but, according to Maisch, this reference is incorrect. (See A. J. P., 1879.)

Properties.—The several varieties of sarsaparilla are officially described as follows:

"MEXICAN SARSAPARILLA.—In loose bundles, or pressed into bales, single bundles attaining a length of 60 cm. and composed of from 20 to 35 folded roots attached to a crown with one or more stout stems; roots from 3.6 to 6 mm. in diameter; externally grayish-brown to dark brown, minutely hairy, longitudinally furrowed, the furrows containing more or less of a blackish earth; fracture tough, fibrous; internally light brown with a more or less shrunken, mealy or sometimes horny cortex surrounding the porous central cylinder, pith distinct; nearly inodorous; taste mucilaginous, somewhat sweetish and acrid. Remove the woody, knotty crown with portions of the overground stems.

"HONDURAS SARSAPARILLA.—In more or less compact, cylindrical bundles, attaining a length of 55 cm. and a diameter from 8 to 15 cm., consisting of the long, folded roots bound together by roots of the same plant; roots from 2 to 6 mm. in diameter; externally dark- or reddish-brown, longitudinally fun-owed, the furrows usually free from soil; fracture fibrous; internally consisting of a grayish-white or dark brown cortex, a light yellow and porous central cylinder and a whitish pith; taste mucilaginous and slightly acrid.

"JAMAICA SARSAPARILLA.—In more or less compact and somewhat flattened bundles, from 30 to 45 cm. in length and from 10 to 15 cm. in width, consisting of the folded roots loosely bound with roots of the same plant; roots from 2 to 5 mm. in diameter; externally grayish-brown to reddish-brown, longitudinally wrinkled, more or less furrowed and bearing numerous coarse fibrous rootlets; taste somewhat sweet and slightly bitter.

"Under the microscope, transverse sections of all of the commercial varieties of Sarsaparilla show an epidermal layer with basal portions of root hairs; a hypodermis composed of several layers of strongly lignified cells, the walls being uniformly thickened, except in Mexican Sarsaparilla in which the inner walls are only slightly thickened; a cortex composed of numerous parenchyma cells mostly containing starch, some containing resin or raphides of calcium oxalate; an endodermis of a single layer of strongly lignified cells, the walls being' uniformly thickened except in Mexican Sarsaparilla in which the outer walls are only slightly thickened; a central cylinder composed of radial bundles connected with sclerenchymatous fibers, the tracheas being large and oval and the phloem in small groups at the periphery of the bundle; and a pith composed of starch-bearing parenchyma cells. Powdered Sarsaparilla is light grayish-brown to dark grayish-brown; when examined under the microscope it exhibits numerous starch grains, from 0.003 to 0.023 mm. in diameter, spherical, or biconvex or spherical-tetrahedral, single to 2- to 4-compound, and frequently with a central-elliptical cleft; calcium oxalate in raphides, from 0.006 to 0.035 mm. in diameter, occurring singly or in groups; cells of the hypodermis and endodermis with lemon-yellow or reddish-yellow porous walls and, in the case of Mexican Sarsaparilla, showing an uneven or irregular thickening, the individual cells from 0.08 to 0.5 mm. in length; fragments of trachea) with simple and bordered pores or scalariform or reticulate thickenings associated with sclerenchymatous fibers having rather thin, very slightly lignified and porous walls. Sarsaparilla yields not more than 10 per cent. of ash." U. S.

According to Tunmann (Apoth. Zeit., xxv, p. 475), the consumption of sarsaparilla in Europe has decreased materially, and the chief market for this drug at the present time appears to be the United States. While the U. S. Pharmacopoeia recognizes three commercial varieties, most of the drug which is used is the Mexican variety, a relatively small quantity of Honduras sarsaparilla being imported. The red Jamaica, Orange or Native Jamaica varieties are used chiefly in England. Hartwich has recently pointed out that the varieties of sarsaparilla on the market are more numerous than are generally supposed. He also states that the greatest emphasis should be placed on the structural characteristics in order to distinguish the several varieties, rather than the form of packing and the supposed botanical origin. He is the best authority on this subject and all of his articles, some of which are enumerated, should be consulted (S. W. P., 1897, No. 44 and 45; 1898, No. 37, and 1909, p. 126; Arch. d. Pharm., 1894, p. 37, and 1902, p. 325; Ber. d. D. Pharm. Ges., 1907, p. 250). A recent article on the pharmacognosy of the several commercial sarsaparillas is by Fleury in Bull. des Sc. Pharmacol., xii, p. 190. Rusby reports finding lots of Mexican sarsaparilla which consisted entirely of "butts" or rhizomes. (Proc. A. Ph. A., 1908, lvi, p. 773.) Kraemer reports finding nineteen ounces of dirt in a bundle of Mexican sarsaparilla weighing four and a half pounds. (Proc. A. Ph. A., 1906, liv, p. 345.) Rusby has reported the presence of a thick, blackish, woody and decidedly astringent root in several shipments of Vera Cruz sarsaparilla. (Jour. A. Ph. A., 1913, p. 1104.)

Sarsaparilla is efficient in proportion as it is acrid to the taste, which is said by some authors to be confined to the cortical portion, while the ligneous fiber and medullary matter are insipid and inert. Hancock avers that all parts are equally acrid and efficacious. The truth is probably between the two extremes, and, as in most medicinal roots, it must be admitted that the bark is more powerful than the interior portions, while these are not wholly inactive. The virtues of the root are communicated to water, cold or hot, but are impaired by long boiling. They are extracted also by diluted alcohol. According to Hancock, the whole of the active matter is not extracted by water. In South America it is the custom to prepare sarsaparilla by digestion in wine or spirit, or by infusion in water with additions which may produce the vinous fermentation and thus add alcohol to the menstruum. The same result, as to the superior efficacy of alcohol as a solvent of the acrid principle of sarsaparilla, has been obtained by the French experimentalists. It has been suggested that sarsaparilla, the virtues of which are admitted to be impaired by long boiling, might also be injured by the degree of heat applied in the water or steam bath. But the contrary appears to have been proved by J. F. Judge of Cincinnati. (Proc. A. Ph. A., 1873, p. 595.)

Parillin. (Smilacin. Pariglin. Salseparin. Parallinic acid.)—The crystalline principle to which any activity of sarsaparilla is due is now called parillin. It was first discovered by Palotta, who described it in 1824 under the name of pariglin. Subsequently, Folchi supposed that he had found another principle, which he called smilacin. Flückiger recommends the preparation of parillin by exhausting the crushed root with warm alcohol and distilling the tincture until the residue weighs one-sixth of the root. It is then gradually mixed with one and a half times its weight of water, and after several days the liquid is decanted from the light yellow precipitate, which is then mixed with about half its volume of alcohol, transferred to a filter, and washed with alcohol of 20 or 30 per cent. because parillin is less soluble in weak alcohol than in strong alcohol. The yield was 0.18 and 0.19 per cent. It is whiter inodorous, almost tasteless in the solid state, but bitter, acrid, and nauseous when dissolved in alcohol or water. It is very slightly soluble in cold water, but more readily in boiling water, without crystallizing on cooling. It is very soluble in alcohol, especially at the boiling temperature. Ether and the volatile oils also dissolve it. Its aqueous solution has the property of frothing very much on agitation. According to Flückiger, concentrated sulphuric acid yields a yellow solution, which, on absorbing moisture, gradually turns cherry-red; warm diluted sulphuric acid colors parillin greenish, then red, and finally brown; phosphoric acid has a similar reaction, but the color is more greenish-yellow. The aqueous solution is precipitated by alcoholic solution of lead acetate, by lead subacetate, and by tannin, and when warmed reduces alkaline copper tartrate, but does not react with other tests for sugar until after it has been boiled with a dilute acid, when the solution acquires a green fluorescence. This is best observed if a trace of parillin is dissolved in warm concentrated sulphuric acid, and disappears on dilution with water or on neutralizing with ammonia. Parillin is not sternutatory; its acrid taste is best observed in alcoholic solution. (See A. J. P., xii, 245.) The solutions of parillin are without acid or alkaline reaction. By treatment with dilute mineral acids, it is resolved into parigenin and sugar. Poggiale found parillin both in the cortical and in the medullary part of the root, but most largely in the former. W. von Schulz (P. J., 1892, 6) has shown that Dragendorff's smilacin, smila-saponin, or sarsaparill-saponin, C20H32O10, sarsa-saponin, C22H36O10, discovered by himself, and Flückiger's parillin, C26H44O10; are three homologous compounds all belonging to the same series, having the general formula CnH2n-8O10. These three all split up into sarsasapogenin (parigenin of Flückiger) and one or more molecules of glucose on boiling with dilute acids. Robert (A. J. P., 1892, 465) comes to practically the same results, stating the constituents to be parillin (C26H44O10 + 2 1/2H2O), insoluble in water; saponin (sarsaparill-saponin), 5(C20H32O10 + 2 1/2H2O), soluble in water; and sarsa-saponin, 12 (C22H36O10 + 2H2O), easily soluble in water, and the most active of the constituents.

The sarsaparilla of commerce is apt to be nearly if not quite inert, either from age, or from having been obtained from inferior species of Smilax. This inequality of the medicine, with the improper modes of preparing it long in vogue, has probably contributed to its variable reputation. The only criterion of good sarsaparilla to be relied on is the taste. If it leave a decidedly acrid impression in the mouth after having been chewed for a short time, it may be considered efficient; if otherwise, it is probably inert. Various false sarsaparillas have been sent into commerce from South America. For description by C. Hartwich see A. Pharm., July, 1902.

Uses.—The use of sarsaparilla in medicine is an interesting example of the power of superstition to survive the attacks of truth and reason. It was introduced into Europe about the middle of the 16th century as a remedy for syphilis, but soon fell into disrepute until revived by Fordyce in 1757. Subsequently it came to be used as an alterative in various other chronic diseases, especially chronic rheumatism and scrofula. There is, however, no reason to believe that it possesses any virtues except as a mild gastric irritant through its saponin content. Its most popular employment is in the form of its compound syrup which is used as a vehicle especially for mercury and potassium iodide.

Sarsaparilla may be administered in the form of infusion, compound decoction, compound syrup, or fluidextract. A beer made by fermenting an infusion of the drug with molasses is said to be a popular remedy in South America. The smoke of sarsaparilla has been highly recommended in asthma, (J. P. C, xviii, 221.)

Dose, thirty, to sixty grains (2-3.9 Gm.).

Off. Prep.—Fluidextractum Sarsaparillae, U. S. (Br.); Fluidextractum Sarsaparillae Compositum, U. S.; Syrupus Sarsaparillae Compositus, U. S. (from fluidextract); Decoctum Sarsaparillae Compositum, N. F.


The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 1918, was edited by Joseph P. Remington, Horatio C. Wood and others.



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