Heal it With Nature!
Alternative Medicine in Belize

by Peter Singfield




The root juice sold in Belize is concocted from Coclemeca and Gangweo in combination.

The following is extracted from a pamphlet Published and Printed in Belize 1992

Graphic of front page of actual pamphlet


Note: The following is only the section on "Root"


You see, the Maya were a great civilization, and like all great civilizations before, discovered paper and the written word. They were not dependent on word of mouth and legends, as in a primitive culture, to pass down their teachings from one generation to the next. To quote from "An Overview of the Mayan World" (ISBN: 968-7232-19-6), Page 81;

"Without a doubt, the Mayan culture can be considered as the most brilliant of the American continent, and as one of the most notable of the world in its time. These considerations can be easily verified through the analysis of their difficult and complex writing system. The Maya possibly began their writing at the beginning of the formative period. (2500 B.C.)"

"Unfortunately, Bishop Landa, motivated by his religious fanaticism, took a negative attitude toward the Mayan writing and ordered twenty-seven Mayan books to be burned in the atrium of the church in the village of Mani, Yucatan, on June 16, 1561. Landa believed that the burning of the books was the best way to eradicate the native religion, which he considered to be filled with evil spirits and demons."

And so went the great Mayan libraries as the Catholic church burned each and every one from that day forth. When a society dependent on the written word loses its libraries it loses everything. We hear that there existed many codices written by the Maya on the subjects of medicine and herbs but none have survived. So it is a great guessing game we play today, trying to piece back together the history of their medicinal powers.

The "Root Juice" is one such reconstruction.

It has been said that there are 350 variations of the species sarsaparilla. Coclmeca is one of these. For reasons that become clear as you read this paper, I feel its possible that the Coclmeca is closely related to the "Smilax glabra" species, the China Root.

As you will soon read there has been great controversy over the medicinal benefits of Sarsaparilla over the last 400 and more years. As is noted by the researcher a lot of this has to do with which species is being used. Further, many times counterfeit herbs have been sold as the real thing (Adulteration). Modern testing of herbal products is sloppy due to poor identification of the species and samples that are sometimes not fresh. Here in Belize I gather the Coclmeca from ancient Maya ruins where the Maya themselves cultivated it for thousands of years. The roots are monsters commonly weighing over 50 pounds. This is the same medicine that the Spanish carried back to Europe 400 years ago. The same medicine that was so widely acclaimed by everyone. I am not dealing in anything but the highest quality sarsaparilla.

Root Juice is actually a specially brewed combination of two herbs. The other root, Gangweo, is presently not cataloged by modern Science. The Maya who have worked with gangweo for thousand of years know that it contains many hormones. Thus they say that when you consume lots of Gangweo tea you become "Hairy". Also, do not forget, that the actual brewing of these two herbs together may be further creating a specific chemical reaction and or synthesis. The Gangweo used in the Root Juice also comes only from Maya ruins, which abound in their natural, undisturbed state here in Belize. It to would appear to have been cultivated in the gardens of these ancient, great cities.

For what ever the reason, years of applying the Root Juice treatment to people in Canada and Belize leave no doubt in my mind to Steriod activity. It does rejuvenate the sex drive; it does build muscle; it does relieve arthritis and rheumatism. It does everything the ancient legends claim. It is the proverbial fountain of youth. Nothing but nothing works like Root juice!!

At this point, I would like to thank Dr. Dennis V. C. Awang; B.Sc., Ph.D., F.C.I.C.; Head, Natural Products; bureau of Drug Research; Health Protection Branch; Canada. Dennis was instrumental in supplying all the technical data regarding the Coclmeca. In early December, 1991 he even traveled here to Belize for two weeks, where during extensive field trips into the bush of Belize, we interviewed different Medicine Men and gathered important samples of Coclmeca and Gangweo.

From that time Dennis has supplied me with the technical information that would have been difficult if not impossible for me to find. It is unfortunate that the Canadian Government, his employer, terminated his entire department in February, 1992 ending anymore help from this excellent source.

It is truly unfortunate the samples supplied from his Belize field trip were never chemically analyzed, leaving many questions yet to be answered. The following paper was supplied to me by Dennis. It is the definitive study on sarsaparilla.

Following is an extensive article on the history of Sarsaparilla by Christopher Hobbs for the American Botanical Council in 1988.

[Note: In the following paper my comments are shown this way.]


Sarsaparilla, A Literature Review
By Christopher Hobbs

Reprint number 101
From HerbalGram No. 17, Summer 1988
by the American Botanical Council
P.O. Box 201660, Austin, Texas, 78720

A group of medicinal plants from the genus Smilax, collectively called sarsaparilla, was introduced from the New World into European medicine in the early 1600's by Spanish traders. Sarsaparilla soon found a ready market throughout Europe for treatment of syphilis and a variety of complaints that were considered to yield to the action of "blood purification." Since that time, and undoubtedly centuries before, plants from genus Smilax have been used world wide to alleviate many human ills. Because of a combination of factors, to be reviewed in the following paper, sarsaparilla has seen drastic swings in popularity - from the height of success and acclaim as an important medicinal drug plant, selling hundreds of thousands of pounds per year, to its dismissal as a worthless nostrum. The following paper reviews the literature on the botany, history of use, chemistry, pharmacology, clinical use and adulteration of sarsaparilla.

The name sarsaparilla comes from the Spanish zarza (a bramble), parra (a vine) and illa (small). A small brambly vine. The ancient Latin name was Smilax, and is mentioned as such by Pliny. Linnaeus described this group of plants under the genus Smilax, which is still recognized today by most botanists from the northern hemisphere, being placed in the Lily family, Liliaceae. Some recent taxonomic literature from South America places the plants under a segregate family, the Smilacaceae.

There are approximately 350 species worldwide in the genus, occurring mostly in the tropics, subtropics and Asia. Smilax is represented by 12 species in the USA, of which two are from the West, S. californica and S. jamesii.

Only a few of the species are known to be commonly traded as botanical drugs. The taxonomic history of the medicinal species presented in Table 1 (after Klaus). To this list are added plants that have also been called sarsaparilla, and have been used as an adulterant or substitute.


Plants sold as Sarsaparilla

Species Official from:
Honduran Sarsaparilla
Smilax sarsaparilla L 1820 to 1842
Smilax officinalis 1842 to 1942
Smilax Regelii Killip & Morton 1942 to present
Mexican Sarsaparilla
Smilax medica Chamisio & Schlectendal 1882 to 1942
Smilax aristolochiaefolia Miller 1942 to present
Jamaican Sarsaparilla
Smilax ornata Hooker 1905 to 1942
Ecuadorian Sarsaparilla
Smilax spp. 1942 to 1959
Smilax febrifuga Kunth 1960 to present
Indian Sarsaparilla
Hemidesmus indica
not official
American Sarsaparilla Not official
Aralia nudicaulis (Eastern US)
European Sarsaparilla, Italian Smilax Not official
Smilax aspera (S. Europe)
False China-root not official
Smilax Psuedo-China (S.E. US.)
China-brier, Bullbrier not official
Smilax Bona-mox (S.E. US.)

Morphologically, the plants are mostly woody vines, that climb by means of a pair of tendrils on the petiol of wide prominently ribbed simple leaves. The flowers are small, regular, greenish, yellowish or bronze, and dioecious (separate male and female flowers). They occur in umbels on auxiliary peduncles. The fruit is a small black, blue or red berry.

Knotty, short rhizomes typically grow in damp forest soil. The prickly stems at times climb high into the canopy. This is one reason (the extreme leaf variation is another) for the years of taxonomic confusion among the medicinal species: the flowers and fruits are often out of reach of would be collectors.

The original sarsaparilla was "observed by Schiede on the Eastern slope of the mountains (in Mexico). He was told that its roots gathered all year long, dried in the sun and tied into bundles, being carried to Vera Cruz for export." (1879)

Before 1530, when sarsaparilla was introduced into European trade from New Spain (Mexico), several species were being used for medicine in their native lands.

Smilax aspera was known and used by the ancients. Dioscorides and Pliny recommended the leaves of this plant against "deadly poisons, weather they be drunk before or after." Its nature was considered to be "dry and hot", a reference to the ancient system of characterizing medicinal plants.

Sarsaparilla was mentioned by many early writers, who observed it in many parts of Southern Europe and North Africa. The young shoots were eaten, and in Roman times the mature vines were worn as garlands at festivals of Bacchus, by the common people. This practice was generally "looked upon as ill omened, and consequently banished from all sacred rites - receiving this mournful character from the maiden Smilax, who upon her love being slighted by the young Crocus, was transformed into this shrub (Pliny 16:63)."

Gerard, in his "Great Herbal", mentions that the Honduran and Peruvian sarsaparilla "are a remedy against long continual pain of the joints and head, and against the cold." Spanish sarsaparilla, S. aspora, he takes to be similar, but weaker in action.

According to Monards, the Spanish botanist, Mexican sarsaparilla was introduced into Europe medicine about 1536 at Seville. Other species soon followed from Guatemala and Honduras. They were highly regarded as a remedy for syphilis, which was also imported from the new world in the late 1400's, and for rheumatism. from Spain, the herb found its way into the pharmacists shops all over Europe and England.

Few plants have had the rise and fall in popularity that sarsaparilla has had. When it was introduced it was considered remarkably effective for diverse chronic diseases, and many doctors of the time wrote about its benefits. Generally considered an alterative tonic, blood purifier, diuretic and diaphoretic, it was given alone or in combination with other herbs, as well as with mercury for long-standing venereal disease.

Pereia, a leading physician in London in the mid nineteenth century, felt that sarsaparilla works when "the malady is of long continuance, and the constitution is enfeebled and emaciated, either by repeated attacks of the disease, or by the use of mercury," and that it is "the great restorer of appetite, flesh, color, strength and vigor." Pereira gives obstinate skin disease, such as chronic abscesses as a further indication. He concludes that "the great advantage of sarsaparilla over many other alteratives and tonics, is, that although it may fail in doing good, it never does any harm beyond that of now and then causing slight disorder of stomach." Although sarsaparilla found favor with many physicians, the same charges that its chief benefit was to make money for its distributors were made then, as today. That it was profitable and popular can be seen by the 176,854 pound imported into England alone during 1831.

Perhaps because of inferior quality roots, adulteration and substitution, sarsaparilla fell completely out of favor in the late eighteenth century, but it was strongly promoted again about 1750 by Fordyce and others, as a remedy for syphilis. Its renewed popularity continued until the time of Cullen, the famous English doctor, about 1800. Cullen considered it completely inert, and was quite influential in his day.

Sarsaparilla was again in favor around 1850, when it was official in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia. It was recommended by Wood, the co-author of the U.S. Dispensatory, for "the treatment of secondary syphilis." It continued to be official until 1950.

During the turn of the century, highly promoted patent remedies of dubious efficacy, considered "quack" remedies by regular doctors, were in their heyday. Foremost among these were various sarsaparilla remedies, notably Ayer's Sarsaparilla, which "made the weak strong". This preparation sold hundreds of thousands of bottles all over the world, with indications for weakness and disease in nearly any organ of the body.

"Disorders of the liver, stomach and kidneys, as well as tuberculosis, tumors, rheumatism, female weakness, sterility, pimples and syphilis, could be cured by just one remedy, Ayer's Sarsaparilla."

From our perspective today, whether or not one believes in the efficacy of sarsaparilla as a long term tonic, diuretic and blood purifier, the unbridled claims listed above might seem to be nothing more than pure commercial hype. No wonder that Congress stepped in and passed the 1906 Food and Drug Act, in an attempt to control the extravagant claims made for patent commercial products.

[Note from the maker of "Root Juice". I have to agree with the claims of Ayer and do not consider these "unbridled" at all.] Smilax China is an ancient drug plant from China. It was reported in the older literature to be imported into Europe in the seventeenth century, under the name China Root. Recent work has indicated that the original China Root is actually Poria cocos (a tuber-like underground fungus which grows in association with the roots of various conifers) or Smilax glabra. Lindley, the eminent botanist, said of this plant:

"Smilax china has a large fleshy root, the decoction of which is supposed to have virtues equal to that of sarsaparilla in improving the health after the use of mercury. According to the Abbe Rochon, the Chinese often eat it instead of rice, and it contributes to make them lusty."
(This description dates from 1830)

[Note: Coclmeca is identified as China Root by the local Creole here in Belize. Mexican herbalists recognize "Racina China" as a species of sarsaparilla found only in Southern Mexico (Yucatan). Their description and drawings conform exactly with the root I use in the Root Juice. A large fleshy root. It is quite possible that Coclmeca is a close relative of Smilax glabra. A very clear identification is the fact that when fresh the root is a pale white color yet when dried the root becomes dark red. The color deepens with age. More on this when we hear about Emerick Solmo later.]

Smilax china is taken in decoction for boils and abscesses, rheumatoid arthritis, urinary tract infection, enteritis, diarrhea and as an antidote to mercurial poisoning -- nearly the same indications as sarsaparilla. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it has cooling properties and removes excess moisture, promotes diuresis, is tonic and antimalarial.

In the USA, several species of Smilax have been widely used as a substitute for sarsaparilla, and for other medicinal and food purposes. The principle species used was S. Pseudo-China, being the one "generally preferred in medicine as an alterative." It also formed the basis of many diet drinks among the "unlicensed faculty". "from the tubers, with maize, sassafras and molasses the Negroes of Carolina manufacture "a very pleasant" beer." It was also used to fatten hogs in South Carolina. A famous Eclectic physician, John King, thought S. Smallii (S. lanceolata) more effective in syphilis than any of the commercial species.

The main active fraction of the various species has usually been considered to consist of saponin glycosides. since they are steriod-like compounds, and because of its reputation as a male rejuvenating tonic, many have made claims that sarsaparilla contains active steroid hormones.

Paltta first isolated parillin, probably a mixture of saponin glycosides (it foamed upon shaking with water) in 1824. this mixture has also been called smilacin, salseparin, sarsaparillin and parallinic acid. Fluckiger determined that there was about 0.19% in an unidentified Smilax species.

The major saponin glycosides with steriod like nuclei (from the new world species) are now recognized as sarsaponin, smilacin, sitosterol-d-glucoside, and pollinastanin. they occur in the plants along with their genins and other steroids as sarsapogenin, smilgenin, sitosterol, stigmasterol and pollinastanol. One modern figure indicated the usual level of steriod saponins in unidentified Smilax species, indicated to be sarsaparilla, as 1.8-2.4%. (Wagner, H., et al. 1984)

Other constituents include, paroaparic acid, sarsapic acid, resin, volatile oil, starch, a mixture of fatty acids (palmitic, stearic, behenic, oleic and linoleic), oxalic acid and a polysaccharide.

The mineral ions were quantified in the dry root of Honduran sarsaparilla and determined to be 1.25% SiO, 0.42% Al, 0.41% Ca, 0.30% Mg, 1.25% K and 0.46% Cl. The vitamin C content of Mexican sarsaparilla, S. aristolochiaefolia (dry root) was determined to be 19.4 mg%.

More recent work has been done on Smilax aspera, the European species, than on the new world species. The constituents identified include sarsapogenin, tigogenin (var. mauritanica), asperoside, 31-norcycloartanol, and from the essential oil, methylvanillin and piperonol. Diosgenin, a common phytosterol, has been isolated from Smilax china.

After all the interest in sarsaparilla from both the medical profession, public and patent medicine manufacturers over the years, it is somewhat surprising that so little clinical and laboratory testing has been done on it. There is no sound evidence in the scientific literature to support the many fantastic claims that have been made for sarsaparilla, especially as a male rejuvenator or energy tonic. Nonetheless, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that those plants have pharmacological activity. Perhaps, as the famous American physician, and co-author of the US Dispensatory, George Wood, suggest:

"It seems to me impossible to resist the conclusion ... that a remedy cannot be quite inert, which has so often risen into notice after neglect, and which, though considered useless by many, has the voice of the greater number, and those probably the most experienced, in its favor."

There are a few interesting studies on the pharmacology of sarsaparilla that bear mention, which are summarized in table 1. It must be noted that all of the clinical studies cited in the literature are from the period 1933-1951. None of the studies are performed blind, some of them being reports of subjective improvement among subjects.

TABLE #1 Findings Reference "Renotrat", a sarsaparilla preparation, increased urinary excretion of Uric Acid resulting in a 30% drop in blood levels Humpert, Fritz (1933) Klin. Wochschr 12; 1696 (CA 28:828) Sarsaparilla aqueous extract had a beneficial effect in cases of eczema and psoriasis. Leclerc, Henri (1938) Presse Med. 46:284 (CA 32:5505) Sarsaparilla root "showed diuretic action in the rat and increased the elimination of chloride and uric acid" Jaretzky, Robert (1951) Pharmazie 6: "An extract of Smilax ornata corresponding to 15g of root given twice a day for several months gave better results in lepers than did sulfones." 115-117 Rollier, R, et 776-780. al. (1951). Maroc med. 30: (CA 46: 1719g).

One recent question being hotly discussed in the herb industry is the nature of sarsaparilla's action on the sexual hormones, if any. Sarsaparilla has been widely touted as a male sexual rejuvenator, some even contending that it contains actual human testosterone. This report, however, (by G. Singer) is from non-technical advocacy literature. Commercial products abound that either openly declare sarsaparilla to be a good source of anabolic steroids or infer it. The major market seems to be centered around the recent "body building" craze. It is known that many athletes, both professional and amateur use steroid drugs which could be harmful to health. Officials have banned such use, and initiated testing to safeguard against many who ignore the regulations. This coupled with several highly publicized deaths from steroid use may be the reasons for the present search for safe and legal substitutes. Neither scientific study, nor folklore evidence supports the use of Smilax for increasing muscle mass.

[Note: Never-the-less in the Root Juice formula it most certainly does build muscle.]

Chemical analysis to date has found no testosterone-like compounds in sarsaparilla. One report indicated that the drug contains progesterone and cortin (hormone from the suprarenal cortex), but with no reference to actual scientific research. According to the recent article by Singer, Russel Marker and Ewald Rohrman "first found testosterone, the male sex hormone, in sarsaparilla." Marker is well known for his work in the area of steroidal saponins, but a review of his research, mostly published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in the 1930's reveals only that he was able to synthetically produce testosterone from sarsapogenin (a component of some Smilax species) and diosgenin. An interesting New York Times article entitled "Sarsaparilla Root has Vitality Drug" and a book on aphrodisiacs by Walton both cite work by a Hungarian-born researcher, living in Mexico, by the name of Emerick Solmo. In Walton's book, it is claimed that Solmo:

"removed the bark from the root, [pulverized it], and extracted by various processes some odorless white crystals. These were then mixed with a saline solution similar to the fluids of the body, and used as a solution for injection, or, conversely, made up in the form of tablets. Many thousands of clinical tests were made with this substance on both animals and human beings, and it was conclusively proved that "sarsaparilla testosterone" possessed the identical properties of animal and cholesterol testosterone."

[Note: I am well acquainted with this article being quoted. In the original article, just before the quote above: "The superstition which impressed him was a tale that an infusion of blood red sarsaparilla roots was good for weakness. He began to investigate and experiment. Removing the bark from the root he pulverized it, and extracted by various processes ---" Blood red sarsaparilla root. This is an important species identifier. Further, what part of Mexico did this root come from? The Maya say that it is good for weakness. The Maya are only found in the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The early Spanish conquistadors first operated in these districts so it would appear that would be the root they first exported that was so effective in early medicinal practices. I am very sure that a clear identification of sarsaparilla species was impossible at that time. Remember, at present, I only find this root growing on or near ancient Maya ceremonial centers.]

A literature search does not turn up any papers on Solmo's work, but they may be published in a Mexican journal that is not listed in the major indexes.

Testosterone, estradoil, cortisone and several of their derivatives could not be detected in Smilax officinalis (=S. regelii) using thin layer chromatography. A report of the recent tests, signed by A.J. Vlietink of Laboratorium voor Farmacognisie, Dept. Farmaceutische Wetenschappen, Wilrijk, Belgium stated that "none of the reference hormones could be ascertained in a concentration of more than 0.008%. In reviewing this report, it must be kept in mind that the tests were only performed using one commercial sample, supplied by Gepharma-Netherland, and not a vouchered sample. This leaves the question open as to its true identity.

[Note: Species is everything. Also age of sample, when gathered, where gathered and how processed / stored. Further the extraction method is of prime importance.]

Testosterone has not been reported to occur in any plant and other human hormones are rare in plants, being found only in very small quantities in some pollens and seeds. While it is still possible that sarsaparilla may have hormonal effects, the many claims being made for this plant are made without the backing of substantive scientific research. Further testing should be done, using vouchered samples of at least the three most commonly traded species, S. aristolochiaefolia, S. officinalis and S. ornata. These samples should be as freshly dried as possible, to avoid degradation of active constituents. Most of the past work with sarsaparilla must be called into question, because of lack of documented starting material (both for freshness and identity). Lastly, the plants should be tested for their possible active metabolites through changes in blood serum levels and urinary excretion of active hormones. [Note: Exactly as Solmo has done.]

Much has been written about the clinical uses of sarsaparilla, from the mid-1600's until the mid-1900's, three hundred years. As mentioned, some physicians felt that sarsaparilla was inert and had no clinical value, while many others used it.

Determining whether or not a particular drug plant has activity should be based, in part, on the folk record of traditional use. In Jamaica, Cuba and Mexico, several species of Smilax are used in indigenous medicine. These include Smilax mexicana, S. papyracea, S. regelii, S. havanensis and S. domonhensis. Morton documents the traditional uses of these species for blood purification, syphilis, as a stimulant and tonic, for gout, rheumatism, skin conditions, and as an "aphrodisiacal potion, to promote man's nature or courage (with other plants)."

The question must be asked whether these uses were in practice before the Spaniards invaded the new world. In North America, the Amerindians used several Smilax species, including Smilax bona-nox, S. glauca, S. herbacea, S. laurifolia, S. pseudo-china, S. rotundifolia and S. tamnoides for various complaints. These include its use as a general tonic, "to make one young", for urinary disturbances, rheumatism, stomach troubles, kidney troubles, and as a gynecological aid. At least seven different tribes used these plants, suggesting that some of the uses might have been established without the influence from Spanish or other European settlers. If so, the uses are remarkably coherent with those of the uses reported from European medicine.

[Note: The Maya were not a tribe but a great civilization. They used the Coclmeca for thousand of years for all the reasons already mentioned.]

If Smilax does prove to have useful clinical applications, several points are worth emphasizing.

  • 1: The quality of the drug is important, if one is to expect clinical activity. The best sarsaparilla imparts a slightly nauseating, acrid taste to the mouth. The more acrid the drug, the better, even to the point of inducing a burning sensation in the throat. Presumably, this response is stimulated by the presence of saponins, which are known to be irritating to the mucous membranes. It is the author's experience that Jamaican sarsaparilla is only mildly acrid, Mexican and Honduran, more so. When the drug is old, much activity has been probably lost. Uneven quality may be one reason for the swings of popularity the drug has experienced. If Smilax saponins prove useful, chemical assays by HPLC or TLC could be an invaluable in ascertaining quality.
  • 2: Sarsaparilla was not considered by early practitioners to be fast-acting. Many practitioners who have written about its action have stated that its use must be persisted in. This can be seen by the following statement from Wood's Therapeutics (1883).

"The curative effect of sarsaparilla is very slow, because the alterative change of tissue upon which its efficacy probably depends, is also slow; and this very slowness may constitute one of its real merits; as it seems difficult seriously to abuse a remedy of such feeble physiological action. But gradually, under its use, the appetite often increases, the general nutrition improves, the secretions assume their normal state... A new and healthy tissue has taken the place of the old and diseased."

[Note: I am always stressing this point with my patients here in Belize -- it is a slow acting treatment. It is shameful to abandon once started since the results are always amazing. Normal treatment is three months and I have had other cases where satisfaction only occurred after six months. Such a prostrate problems.]

Wood and other practitioners used sarsaparilla mostly for syphilis, chronic rheumatism, various forms of scrofulous disease (tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands) and skin diseases. Pereira says of it:

"acts as a powerful and valuable alterative tonic (Term originally used for drugs said to reestablish healthy functions of the system). Its continued use is often attended with improvement of appetite and digestion, augmentation of strength, increase of flesh..."

Phillips claims in his "Materia Medica" that the continued use of sarsaparilla causes an "increase of flesh and muscular power," through improving digestion and assimilation. He asserts that it is both a medicine and a food. Formerly, the Smilax species with the highest starch content were considered the most efficacious.

[Note: The Maya use Coclmeca as food during "hard times" and say that it keeps them from starving.]

Sarsaparilla has also been extensively used in the food industry as a flavor component and foaming agent in root beer, frozen dairy desserts, candy and baked goods, and it has been approved for food use by the FDA.

As of 1985, sarsaparilla was official in the pharmacopoeias of Belgium, China, Japan and Portugal as a flavoring extract or decoction. Japan and China specify Smilax glabra.

Sarsaparilla is most often used as a water decoction, liquid extract or compound decoction. The liquid extract is made by percolating the powdered drug with and equal weight to volume of 20% ethanol and 80% distilled water menstruum with 10% glycerin added.

[Note: The "Root Juice" is a compound water decoction using "rain" water.]

The British Pharmaceutical Code gives the official formula for the compound decoction as follows:

Sarsaparilla, 125 g; sassafras root, 12.5 g; guaiacum wood, 12.5 g; licorice 12.5 g; mezereon, 6.25 g and distilled water to 1L.

"Macerate the sarsaparilla root, licorice and mezereon for one hour with 1500 ml of distilled water, then boil for ten minutes, cool, strain, and, if necessary, pour sufficient distilled water over the contents of the strainer to produce the required volume."

The dose is given as 1/4 to 1 fluid oz.

(Note: HerbalGram does not recommend this decoction for any medical purpose and hastens to add that sassafras is banned from food use because it contains the carcinogenic chemical safrole. Mezereon is reportedly toxic --- Ed.)

ADULTERANTS Sarsaparilla has been commonly adulterated on the commercial market throughout its history of use. The most common adulterant, still in use today, is "Hemidesmus indicus" (=Periploca indica), the Indian sarsaparilla. The author has seen commercial products labeled "Mexican sarsaparilla" that actually contained "Hemidesmus". The two are easy to distinguish. Hemidesmus is dark brown, has a slight bitter taste and a strong smell of vanilla. Species of Smilax will have a bland taste, no smell and a light color.

[Note: Except for the species Solmo and I use which is blood red once cured. The Coclmeca is a very large, bulbous, fleshy root with many protruding "eyes" and a deep blood red colored bark. This large root, at times weighing over fifty pounds, is chipped or chopped and then dried. As the root dries and cures it turns an ever deeper red in color. Even the main stalk leading to the vine exhibits this quality, turning purplish / red with time.]

The different sarsaparilla (Mexican, Jamaican and Honduran, ect.) can be differentiated by appearance when in their whole form. When a powdered sample is to be tested for authenticity, there are many microscopic descriptions and photographs in the literature for reference, and although some skill is required, microscopic analysis can provide conclusive evidence of adulteration.

Thin layer chromatography (TLC) is a good method for determining the presence of sarsaponin, which might rule out some adulterants.

Other common adulterants mentioned in the literature include Carex arenaria (German sarsaparilla), Agave cubensis, Muehlenbeckia. Other non-official species of Smilax are also substituted, namely, S. aspera (Portuguese sarsaparilla), S. prolifers (Italian sarsaparilla), S. excelsa (Spanish sarsaparilla), S. rotundifolia (Syrian sarsaparilla), and S. glauca (Macedonian sarsaparilla).

As the reader can surmise from the foregoing paper, there is no "scientific" rationale for the medicinal use of sarsaparilla. This is not to say that it is inactive or useless as a source of medicine. A long history of folk use for parallel ailments in several diverse cultures may provide clues to the nature of its activity. However, research to determine the nature of its activity, if any, as well as to set standards for active species, levels of active constituents and fingerprinting of true species and adulterants, using TLC and high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), still awaits interested researchers.

[Note: My sentiments exactly]

As most people in the world still use medicinal drug plants for their primary health care, and their popularity is increasing in this country, as well as other industrialized nations, sarsaparilla may find a place in the medicine of the future.

About the Author:
Christopher Hobbs, from Santa Cruz Cal. is a third generation botanist who researches and writes about medicinal herbs.

Bush Medicine of Belize

Before modern medicine developed laboratory drugs, our ancestors all over the world used herbs and weeds for health. In many parts of the world today, they are the only treatment available and sometimes work better than manufactured drugs. Many plants exhibit the "Doctrine of Signatures" which is a concept that there is some physical characteristic about a plant that signals what it could be used for on the physical body.

One great example of this concept is the red peeling bark of the Gumbo-Limbo tree. Also called the "Sunburned Tourist Tree" parts of this tree are used to effectively treat poison wood exposure, sunburn, insect bites and most any other skin related problem.

In developed countries many store-bought medicines originate from "Nature's Pharmacy." When you use aloe Vera gel for sunburn, you are benefiting from bush medicine. The active ingredient in aspirin comes from willow bark, a Native American healing plant. Over 25% of the worlds commercial medicines come from plant based chemicals found in the tropical regions. Below are just some of the Natural Remedies found in Belize.

The information contained on this page is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be an endorsement of any of the remedies mentioned. Be very careful using any "Bush Medicine".


Native to Africa, aloe vera is commonly cultivated elsewhere. The clear gel found inside the plant's leaf and the crystalline part found alongside the leaf blade, which contains aloin, are both used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

The clear gel is a remarkably effective healer of wounds and burns, speeding up the rate of healing and reducing the risk of infection. The brownish part containing aloin is a strong laxative, useful for short-term constipation. Aloe is present in many cosmetic's formulae because its emollient and scar preventing properties.

Research Results: Aloe Vera juice and extracts have been found effective for a variety of conditions. These include wound healing acceleration in humans, antiviral activities for herpes simplex 1 & 2, treatment of water burns and anesthetic activity for treatment of insect stings in humans.

Annato (Bixa orellana L.)

This pink flowering shrub is cultivated for the red/orange dye that comes from it's dried seeds. The seeds are used in cooking to color food such as rice, margarine and soup. They were used by the Caribs and Central American Indians for body paint and insect repellant. Ants that feed off the nectar at the flower base and on the main stem help to protect the plant from harmful creatures. It is used in industrialized nations as a food coloring replacement for red dye #2, which was determined to be a carcinogenic.

Water in which young leaves have been crushed and then strained, has been taken for diarrhea and dysentery.

Research Results: An ethyl alcohol extract of dried Annatto fruit was shown to have in vitro activity against Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus and an ethyl alcohol extract of dried leaves showed the same. Annatto leaves containe favonoids and the seeds contain carotenoids.


Arrowroot  is native to South America and the Caribbean. The local  people use its root as a poultice for smallpox sores, and as an infusion for urinary infections. Arrowroot is used  as a soothing demulcent and a nutrient of benefit in convalescence and for easing digestion. It helps to relieve acidity, indigestion and colic, and is mildly laxative. It may be applied as an ointment or poultice mixed with some other antiseptic herbs such as comfrey.

Bay Geranium (Ambrosia Hispida)

Can be made into soap and used to relieve itching skin. Recommended for indigestion and cleaning of the lungs and mainly used to cure the common cold in the form of a strong tea with lime and salt.

Billy Webb (Acosmium panamensis)

The hard, durable wood of this tree is used in heavy construction, and to make such household items as washing tubs, breadboards and mortar sticks.

The bitter-tasting bark is used as a remedy for coughs and fever. It is the main ingredient in "Sweet Blood", one of the Rain forest Remedies bottled by Ix Chel Farms, which is good for diabetes, dry cough and low appetite.

Blue Flowers (Valerianoides Jamaicensis)

Blue Flowers  are used to soothe babies with colic, gas and constipation. Also used to cool the blood and soothe skin irritations in children.

Breadfruit (Artocarpus Altilis)

Breadfruit  leaves are used for high blood pressure. The leaves slightly crushed, are also bound on the head and forehead as a cure for headache.

Calabash Tree

It is said that the fruit of the Calabash Tree when roasted is a good treatment for menstrual cramps or to induced childbirth and that the leaf can be used in tea to treat colds, diarrhea, dysentery and headaches.

Research Results: The seed has been effective as an abortive and the fruit pulp to force menses, birth and afterbirth. It is best not to use this plant while pregnant. Consejo.bz recommends against the internal use of the pulp based on toxicity (Robineau 1991)

Candle Bush (Senna alata)

This is a flowering shrub, producing towers of yellow flowers and can be found in yards and disturbed forests. Its Belizean name "Piss A Bed" is derived from its use as a traditional remedy to help urinary tract conditions. Throughout the day, one should sip on three cups of tea made from boiling and steeping the flowers. Drinking a leaf tea can help kidney ailments and liver congestion. Fresh juice from the leaves should be applied to skin diseases such as scabies and ringworm. In Guatemala, its common name is "Ringworm shrub".

Cascarilla (Croton Eluteria)

Cascarilla has a very long history of traditional herbal medicine use worldwide. It has long been used as a digestive aid, to stimulate digestion and digestive juices, for nausea and vomiting, and as a general bitter digestive tonic. The bark is prepared as a decoction and utilized for all types of digestive complaints, feverish conditions, anemia, hemorrhoids and high blood pressure. It is also recommended for diarrhea, dysentery, dyspepsia, intermittent and low fevers, intestinal bloating and gas, colic, nausea, an overall tonic during convalescence, and as an expectorant for chronic bronchitis.


Cats will rub and sometime ingest the plant, and then act "drunk" or "wild" for up to an hour or more. No lasting toxicity is reported. Humans also have their moods uplifted and it is supposed to improve mental clarity and alertness. Aids in pain reduction.

Cat's Claw - Uña de Gato   (Uncaria tomentosa and U. guianensis)

Cat's Claw, also called Uña de Gato, is a thorny liana vine reputed to be a remarkably powerful immune system booster and effective in treating a wide array of maladies. It has been proven to have anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties. It has proven useful in treating arthritis, bursitis, allergies and numerous bowel and intestinal disorders. There is some evidence that indicates effectiveness in relieving side effects of chemotherapy.


A tea made of the vine is used for diabetes, hypertension, worms, dysentery, malaria and as a general tonic and blood purifier. It is also very effective to relieve constipation and colds and fevers in children.

Women in Latin American use the leaf for menstrual problems to promote discharge after childbirth. The tea is taken for 9 days after giving birth to clean out and tone up all the organs involved in the delivery. Cerasee is also used as a natural method of birth control, by taking two cups each day after intercourse, for three days. It is said that women who drink Cerasee daily will not conceive during that time.

As a wash, the tea is used externally for sores, rashes, skin ulcers and all skin problems. A Cerasee bath is good for arthritis, rheumatism, gout and other similar ailments.

Cockspur (Acacia cornigera)

Sometimes called the Bullhorn or Cow Thorn, this plant has a symbiotic relationship with an aggressive and painful species of ant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea). The ants live in its thorns and protect the tree from encroaching plants, trying to grow near its trunk or leaves high in the canopy. The ants also emerge from the thorns to attack other insects, humans and animals that come in contact with the tree.

The Pseudomyrmex ferruginea ants have been used as a bush medicine for relief of mucous congestion in infants which are given water containing the ants (once they've been squeezed and strained). Snake doctors use the Cockspur bark and root to slow down snake venom from entering the bloodstream. Acne and other skin conditions can be treated by bathing in water in which the thorns have been boiled.

Copal (Protium copal)

This was a sacred tree of the ancient Maya who used the resin as a ceremonial incense, as well as to ward off evil spirits and the evil eye (it is believed that people can harm others by their envious glances).

The resin was once widely used to treat tooth cavities. They would stuff it into the cavity and several days later, the tooth broke and was removed. Bush Doctors will make a powder made from the bark to be applied to wounds, sores and infections. The bark is also used in a tea (taken before each meal), to treat intestinal parasites.

Ginger Root

For over two thousand years Chinese Medicine has recommended ginger to treat a number of health problems. The influx of Chinese immigrants to Belize has resulted in the addition of Ginger Root as a bush remedy to combat all forms of nausea and vomiting, including appetite loss, indigestion and motion sickness. Comparisons between ginger and prescription or non-prescription drugs for motion sickness relief have been conducted, and similar effectiveness was seen between ginger and drugs. It is also taken to relieve toothache pain, loosen phlegm, to relieve gas, sore throats, headaches, ulcerative colitis, some types of menstrual pain, arthritis pain, as well as fevers and aches caused by colds and flu.

There are a lot of different varieties of ginger. For a more detailed description of the various plants visit Nature Products Network's great website.

Goat Pepper (Capsicum)

Used internally as a powerful stimulant, being considered beneficial in exciting the appetite, also used externally as a counter-irritant. A leaf is slightly crushed and placed on a boil to "draw" it to a head.

Gumbo Limbo (Kamalamee)

While exploring the Belize, you may see a large tree with red shaggy bark that peels off in paper-thin strips. That's the Gumbo-limbo tree, and its bark is a common topical remedy. Strips of bark are boiled in water and then used topically for skin sores, measles, sunburn, insect bites, and rashes or drunk as tea to treat backaches, urinary tract infections, colds, flu, and fevers. Young leaves rubbed on skin exposed to poison wood can prevent reaction and will sooth itching and speed recovery.

The tree is a member of the same botanical species as frankincense and myrrh, both representatives of the worlds oldest medicines. It is also the source of that very, very soft and light wood used for making toy airplanes and boats. In that form it is called balsa wood.

Note: This tree is also known as the Gamalamee, or Kamalamee tree. It is also called the Sunburned Tourists Tree. Tourists get burned and peel, much like the red peeling bark on this tree. And this tree provides a cure!

Hurricane Weed (phyllanthus amarus)

Called both Gale of Wind Weed and Hurricane Weed, the botanical name for this small annual herb is phyllanthus amarus. It is also called the "stone breaker plant" because it has been used for generations to eliminate gallstones or kidney stones. This plant is used for poor appetite, constipation, typhoid fever, flu, and colds. Itís a popular herbal treatment because it has no side effects or toxicity. Phyllanthus amarus has been the focus of a great deal of research in recent years because its antiviral qualities may even be useful in treating hepatitis and the HIV virus.

Jackass Bitters (Neurolaena lobata)

Jackass Bitters is a well-respected plant that has been used widely in traditional Central American medicine. It has yellow flowers and bitter-tasting leaves which contain a potent anti-parasitic agent (sesquiterpene dialdehyde) that is active against amoebas, candida, giardia and intestinal parasites. Traditionally, the herb is taken internally as a tea or a wine or used topically to bath wounds and infections, or as a hair wash to get rid of lice.

Jumbie Plant (wild tamarind)

The Jumbie Plant is used mostly to nourish cattle, but is good for human ailments, too. As with most bush medicine, you boil the leaves from the plant and brew into a tea. If you've had a stressful day, a cup or two of the brew will calm you down. If, on the other hand, you're suffering from flatulence, the tea is said to have a calming effect on your stomach. Some folks drink the tea to strengthen their hearts.

Lignum Vitae (guiacum officinale)

One of the most versatile native trees is the Lignum Vitae, tree of life, or as many old folk call it "Nigly Whitey"). Its glossy leaves are a rich green, and its abundant flowers range in color from purple to blue. Virtually all parts of the tree are valuable, particularly its heavy, dense wood that was once used commercially in construction, until the tree became scarce. Its resin, called guaiacum, is obtained from the wood by distillation and is used to treat weakness and strengthen your back.

Limon Grass

Native from Sri Lanka and South India, lemon grass is now widely cultivated in the tropical areas of America and Asia. Its oil is used as a culinary flavoring, a scent and medicine. Lemon Grass is principally taken as a tea to remedy digestive problems diarrhea and stomach ache. It relaxes the muscles of the stomach and gut, relieves cramping pains and flatulence and is particularly suitable for children. In the Caribbean, lemon grass is primarily regarded as a fever-reducing herb. It is applied externally as a poultice or as diluted essential oil to ease pain and arthritis.

Love Vine

If it is an aphrodisiac you are looking for, then the Love Vine could be the plant for you. Apparently this vine can be found not-so-lovingly attached to other plants, which it eventually kills. As with most of the local remedies, the vine leaves are made into a tea.

Mimosa (Mimosa pudica)

This small ground herb has many common names. It is known in Belize as the Sensitive Plant, Humble Plant, or Sleeping Grass. It closes up and droops down when touched, which indicates one of its properties - to induce sleep. Traditionally, leaves have been placed under one's pillow for treatment of insomnia. A tea made from its leaves and branches is used as a relaxant, pain reliever and to induce sleep. The leaves can also be applied, once mashed, to aching teeth.


The Periwinkle plant has historically been used throughout the Caribbean to treat a wide assortment of diseases. It was used as a folk remedy for diabetes in the area for centuries. Juice from the leaves is used to treat wasp stings and other insect bites. The plant can be boiled to make a poultice to stop bleeding. It has been used as an astringent, diuretic and cough remedy. In Central and South America, it is used as a homemade cold remedy to ease lung congestion and inflammation and sore throats., an extract from the flowers is used to make a solution to treat eye irritation and infections.

If you've had a hard day at work and have aching limbs, the bruised, boiled leaves of the Periwinkle can be applied, giving much sought-after relief.

Research Results: This is an extremely well steadied plant. It is the source of two potent cancer-fighting alkaloids, Vincristine and Vinblastine. The plant contains alkaloids that ore now crucial in the battle against Hodgkin's disease and childhood leukemia. 72 alkaloids have been isolated form Periwinkle. Interestingly, its effectiveness in the treatment of diabetes, its most common bushmedicinal use, has not been verified.

Picao Preto

Picao Preto, a small annual herb with prickly leaves and yellow flowers, is considered a weed in many places. But in the Islands, it has a long history of producing herbal curatives, and virtually all parts of the plant are used. The people of Exuma grind the sun-dried leaves with olive oil to make poultices for sores and lacerations. Leaves are balled up and applied to toothaches, or plastered to the head to soothe a headache. 

Provision Tree (Pachira aquatica)

Also known as Malabar Chestnut, Guiana Chestnut and Saba Nut. this tree is sold commercially in the USA under the name Money Tree. It produces large, colorful flowers and fruits. The fruit can weigh up to six lbs, and be a foot in diameter. The seeds can be roasted and eaten.

Provision Tree bark is highly regarded as a blood tonic. A tea made by boiling its bark is used to help anemia, low blood pressure, fatigue and to generally build strength.

Pound-Cake Bush (Parthenium Hysterophorus)

Used to combat "weakness" and is also used for coughs and as a wash for skin sores. The flowers are sometimes "parched" and sprinkled on skin sores. It is also made into a tea for diabetes.


Brought from the New World to Spain in 1563, sarsaparilla was heralded as a cure for syphilis. In Belize, the herb has traditionally been used to treat a variety of skin problems.

Sarsaparilla is anti- inflammatory and cleansing, and can bring relief to skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis and general itchiness, and help treat rheumatism, rheumatoid, arthritis and gout. Sarsaparilla also has a progesterogenic action, making it beneficial in pre-menstrual problems, and menopausal conditions such as debility and depression. In Mexico the root is still frequently consumed for its reputed tonic and aphrodisiac properties. Native Amazonian peoples take sarsaparilla to improve virility and to treat menopausal problems..


Sea Grapes are said to be especially good if you have an upset stomach. Children used to eat them as a sweet treat, but now the most of the local children prefer candy.

Shepherd's Needle (Bidens Pilosa)

Foliage and flowers are steeped and used for prickly heat, "cooling the blood" and to relieve "sick stomach" and given every day for nine days for worms in children.

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)

In the Bahamas we called this plant "Mother-In-Law's Tongue" because once it gets started, you can't get rid if it! The color pattern on this stemless plant resembles the skin of a snake. Following the "Doctrine of Signatures" this also indicates one of its uses in bush medicine: For snakebite! Rashes and skin sores can be helped by bathing them with water in which the leaves have been boiled. Some people place leaf juice in water for chickens, which helps prevent diseases. (If you get bitten by a Dangerous Snake in Belize, don't rely on Bush Medicine, get to a clinic immediately!)

Soursop / Guyabano (Annona muricata Linnaeus)

To reduce fever, a tea made from Soursop leaves can be taken internally. Leaves added to bathing water has the same effect. The crushed fresh leaves can be applied on skin eruptions to promote healing. A poultice of young Soursop leaves is applied on the skin to alleviate rheumatism and other skin infections like eczema. The tea has also been used as a wet compress on swollen feet and other inflammations. The juice of the fruit can be taken orally as a remedy for urethritis, haematuria and liver ailments.

Other uses: A thick tea can be used to kill bedbugs and head lice. Mixing pulverizing Soursop seeds with soap & water is an effective spray against caterpillars, armyworms and leafhoppers on plants.

St. John's Wort (Hypericum sp.)

There are several species of this flowering shrub found throughout the world in warm temperate to tropical climates. Our Belizean St. John's Wort is common in the savanna areas and easy to find at The Belize Zoo. It can grow on dry, disturbed soil, and benefits from fire ecology, growing quickly and robust after savanna fires.

Scientific research has found that certain species of St. John's Wort were an effective antidepressant in the treatment of mild and moderate depression.

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa)

Wild yam has been used for menstrual cramps and discomfort, rheumatoid arthritis, stomach cramps and pain from gallstones. ailments.

Women in Mexico, for ages, ate the tuber of the Wild Yam as a birth control method. Scientific research has found that the tuber of Dioscorea does contain steroids. These same steroids were then synthetically developed and are used in the manufacturing of birth control pills.

As a final closing message I leave you again with the famous quote from Dr. Wood who says:

"It seems to me impossible to resist the conclusion ... that a remedy cannot be quite inert, which has so often risen into notice after neglect, and which, though considered useless by many, has the voice of the greater number, and those probably the most experienced, in its favor."

Peter Singfield

Xaibe Village; Belize; Central America

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