Sarsaparilla root has been in common use amongst indigenous peoples of Central and South America for many centuries. Many Amazonian shamans and medicine men use this valued root both internally and externally for the treatment of many chronic skin ailments such as eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis.
In Peru and Honduras tribes have used this versatile plant to treat headaches, joint pain, arthritis and gout. New World traders introduced Sarsaparilla into European medicine when it was found to be an effective general tonic and libido enhancer, especially good for male reproductive health.
The stems of many Smilax species are covered with prickles and, sometimes, these vines are cultivated to form impenetrable thickets (which are called catbriers or greenbriers). The root, used for medicinal purposes, is long and tuberous—spreading 6–8 feet—and is odorless and fairly tasteless. Many species of Smilax around the world share the name sarsaparilla; these are very similar in appearance, uses, and even chemical structure. These include S. officinalis, S. japicanga, and S. febrifuga from South America (Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia); S. regelii, S. aristolochiaefolia, and S. ornata from Mexico and Latin America; and S. glabra from China. Sarsaparilla vine should not be confused with the large sasparilla and sassafras trees (the root and bark of which were once used to flavor root beer). Sarsaparilla has been used as an ingredient in root beer and other beverages for its foaming properties—not for its flavoring properties.