From London's Ghost Acres

Sarsaparilla is a vine native to Mexico and Central America. It is commonly used to flavour soft drinks, and is the main component in old-fashion root beer. During the 19th century is was believed to be a treatment for syphilis in North America (although the Compendium quickly assures that its has lost favour, and was now favoured for different treatments.)

In the Compendium Sarsaparilla is used as an alternative, diaphoretic, diuretic, and as a tonic. It is given in the cases of a sore throat, rheumatism, joint pain, and other discomforts that arise from the use of mercury, or from syphilis.

British Pharmacopoeia 1867

Jamaica Sarsaparilla Sarsae Radix

“The dried root of Smilax officinalis… Native if Central America, imported from Jamaica.”[1]


“Roots not thicker than a goose-quill, generally many feet in length, reddish-brown, covered with rootlets, and folded in bundles about eighteen inches long, scentless; taste mucilaginous, feebly bitter, faintly acrid.” [2] Used in the preparations of:

  • Decoctum Sarsae
  • Decoctum Sarsae compositum
  • Extractum Sarsae liquidum

Preparations of Sarsaparilla

Decoction of Sarsaparilla / Decoctum Sarsae [3]

  • Jamaica Sarsaparilla, cut transversely (2 ½ oz), boiling distilled water (1 ½ pint)
  • dose: 2-10 fl oz

Compound Decoction of Sarsaparilla / Decoctum Sarsae compositum [4]

  • Jamaica sarsaparilla, cut transversely (2 ½ oz), sassafras root in chips (1/4 oz), guaiacum wood turnings (1/4 oz), fresh liquorice root, bruised (1/4 oz), mezereon bark (60 grains), boiling distilled water (1 ½ pint)
  • dose: 2-10 fl oz

Liquid Extract of Sarsaparilla / Extractum Sarsae liquidum[5]

  • Jamaica sarsaparilla, cut transversely ( 1 lb), distilled water, at 160° (14 pints), rectified spirit (1 fl oz)
  • dose: 2-4 fl drachm

A Compendium of Domestic Medicine, 1865

Sarsaparilla is classified by Savory as an Alternative (remedies mildly acting upon the secretions)(410/389), a Diaphoretic or Sudorifics (remedies which excite perspiration)[6], a Diuretic (remedies which cause an increased secretion of urine)[7], and as a Tonic (remedies which increase the tone and vigour of the body, producing their effects more slowly than stimulants)[8].

“This root is a nativ of the West Indies. As a medicine its fortune has been exedingly fluctuating. When originally introduced into the Materia Medica, it was thought a sovereign cure of syphilis; but in a short time it lost nearly all its reputation.” During the time of writing, Savory notes that Sarsaparilla was used to treat and cure: “cutaneous erupting, sore throats, obstinate rheumatic affections, those anomalous pains in the bones and joints, and other symptoms, which arise in certain constitutions, and are apparently the joint effect of mercury and of the syphilitic virus.” It is noted by Mr. Bacot to be an effective medicine in “restoring the tone of the stomach, and recruiting the constitution broken down by long-protracted disease.”[9].

Remedies Containing or to be used with

  • Essence of Jamaica Sarsaparilla: “In scurvy, scrofula, obstinate rheumatic affections, and in cutaneous eruptions, it has long been employed with very great success.”[10]
  • Essence of Sarsaparilla, compound: made with red Jamaica sarsaparilla. Equal in strength to the decoction of sarsaparilla, but “much more agreeable in taste and appearance.”[11]
  • Iodide of Potassium: a concentrated essence of sarsaparilla in included in mixture used to administer iodide of potassium. A concentrated decoction of sarsaparilla is included in a mixture given by Mr. C. Hogg to treat psoriasis of the hands.[12]
  • Iodine, Compound Solution of: can be given in a compound essence of sarsaparilla[13]
  • Pill, Plummer’s: can be taken with a decoction of sarsaparilla[14]
  • Syrup of Sarsaparilla with Iodide of Iron: “A preparation well adapted for children and delicate femalesm and may be given with great advantage in all cases where a tonic is required.”[15]

Diseases Treated with

General Diseases

  • Boils: “…in delicate constitutions, a course of Plummer’s pill, with sarsaparilla,” may be taken[16]
  • Scald-head: the bowels are to be treated with alternatives, such as sarsaparilla. [17]

Medical Articles Containing

  • Simple Decoction of Sarsaparilla: sarsaparilla and boiling water[18]
  • Compound Decoction of Sarsaparilla: use the simple decoction of sarsaparilla and combine with other medicine products. “This is similar to the Lisbon diet drink.”[19]

Prescriptions Containing


  • Alternatives in the form of Mixture or Draught (Another): Syrup of sarsaparilla[20]
  • Alternatives in the form of Mixture or Draught (Another): Extract of sarsaparilla, and compound decoction of sarsaparilla[21]
  • Alternatives in the form of Pill, Powder, etc (Another): extract of sarsaparilla[22]


  1. General Medical Council of Great Britain, British Pharmacopeia, (London: Spottiswoode & Co.,1867), 277
  2. GMCGB, 277
  3. GMCGB, 100
  4. GMCGB, 100
  5. GMCGB, 127
  6. Savory, John. A Compendium of Domestic Medicine (London: John Churchill and Sons, 1865), 392.
  7. Savory, 392
  8. Savory, 395
  9. Savory, 131
  10. Savory, 57
  11. Savory, 58
  12. Savory, 82
  13. Savory, 85
  14. Savory, 116
  15. Savory, 149
  16. Savory, 209
  17. Savory, 279
  18. Savory, 292
  19. Savory, 293
  20. Savory, 309
  21. Savory, 310
  22. Savory, 310

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