Sassafras / sarsaparilla.

Newsgroup: alt.folklore.herbs
From: (Michael Moore)
Date: 17 Jan 1996 04:34:11 GMT
Subject: Re: Sarsaparilla help needed

> I suffer from winter induced bronchial asthma, and nothing has helped it so far. I was looking through an old German cookbook of my mom's and there was a medicinal section that listed an asthma tonic made from buther's broom and sarsaparilla ... so I took the recipe to the local organic co-op to get what I need to brew some up ... I was told that sarsaparilla can no longer be sold ... was there a problem with it? (Or are they off their rockers???) I am willing to try anything, coughing without results for 6 months a year is doing me in ....

Sorry, MudDuck, but your coop is crocked. Sarsaparilla (or Smilax) is a member of the Lily (or sometimes the Smilaceae) Family, usually spiney, ALWAYS a vine, with many species, similar effects, growing from the Northeast down into South America. Some folks refer to a close relative of Ginseng, Aralia nudicaulis, as "American" Sarsaparilla ... totally unrelated, but with some moderately reliable effects to quell both EARLY bronchial inflammation and CHRONIC bronchial irritability that is moist and phlegmy ... smoker's cough, winter coughing from wood smoke, forced air heat, etc. Both plants are ABSOLUTELY non toxic (although some Smilax tubers might serve as a "blunt instrument" in a mystery and one can ALWAYS drown in tea...)

The fizzy drink "Sarsaparilla" (the history of THAT is REALLY lengthy ... don't let me get started) is FLAVORED with Sassafras Bark, a member of the Laurel family ... sometimes a HUGE tree ... sometimes a shrub. Sassafras is the primary flavor to Root Beer ... Sarsaparilla (both types) tastes like a weak tea made from some old fibre-board loose-leaf-binder.

SASSAFRAS OIL (a distilled artifact, derived from the rootbark) contains something like 70-80% safrol...a substance that causes mice dipped in it to grow tumors...on the basis of the carcinogenicity of the distilled OIL, the BARK has been hassled from time to time as having itself the potential for being carcinogenic.

Frankly, there is a VERY feeble basis for this ... in fact the FDA has sort of stopped worrying about the whole mess ... too many of us in the business screamed at, or totally ignored, the FDA ... and kept on selling Sassafras Bark. Actually, they didn't REALLY say it was OK, they just stopped saying it was ILLEGAL ... they COULD re-decide again that it was illegal and start confiscating ... or not ... whatever ... the double-edged sword of the feds that is driving old anarchist-liberals like myself into actually LISTENING to the Newtmeister rather than raving at him ... I even was able to listen to Rush Limbaugh for FIVE minutes without screaming ... all 'cause of this type of overweening, irrational and antihumanistic bullshit from regulatory agencies.


Butchers Broom is Ruscus, sort of a prickly Asparagus/Onion that is native to Europe ... and used there both medically and herbally for strengthening diminished vascular tone ... especially veins. I have rarely encountered it here in the U.S .... I gather it can cause some nausea and drooly expectoration if used in excess, but I personally have only encountered it in the form of phytopharmaceutical pills made in Europe.

Michael Moore (
All the SWSBM teaching and clinical manuals, JPEGs of Medicinal Plant photographs and class announcements can be obtained at my web site.

From: Jef Bateman <>

> I was told that sarsaparilla can no longer be sold...was there a problem with it? (Or are they off their rockers???)

you can still get sarsasparilla at many health food stores. Probably the person who told you that about it being outlawed was thinking of *sassafras* root, which is still sold, although it is illegal to sell it as a food item--because it is a toxin and carcinogen. At any rate, they are similar in name and appearance, so it is a natural mistake. If you cannot find it at your local herb store, check out a Mexican herb store, if they have those in your area. Also, it is used as a flavoring in some commercial herb tea blends Also, it is a stimulant, so avoid at night and if you have high blood pressure.

From: Mary Elizabeth <>

> I was told that sarsaparilla can no longer be sold...was there a problem with it? (Or are they off their rockers???)

It is possible they are off their rockers, because I've been buying sarsaparilla capsules and tea at two local health-food stores for a couple of years now. It's also possible that the confusion may have arisen from the fact that some people confuse sarsaparilla with sassafras, possibly from the drink "sasparilla" you hear about in old westerns, and sometimes shows up as sassafras tea. Sassafras and sarsaparilla do have somewhat similar qualities and applications, according to my reference, Michael Tierra's "The Way of Herbs." Tierra also says:

"Concern for the carcinogenic properties of safrole, which is present in small concentrations in sassafras bark, has brought up another problem as to the possible safety of sassafras as an herb and recreational beverage in root beers and teas."

Tierra then cites a number of factors and studies indicating that safrole is not the problem it is alleged to be, especially when the whole herb rather than extracted safrole is used. I once bought a bottle of sassafras tea at a supermarket and the label said "Safrole-free," so presumably the manufacturers had heard of the alleged carcinogen business.

Having said all that, you might be better off taking other herbs for a persistent bronchial cough, especially a mixture containing elecampane, mullein, coltsfoot, and echinacea.