Saint or Sinner?
If they elected whisky, then whisky it was for me. If they drank root beer or sarsaparilla, I drank root beer or sarsaparilla with them. And when there were no friends in the house, why, I didn't drink anything
Jack London, John Barleycorn
Most of us know sarsaparilla or looga as what the white-hatted good guys in old westerns drank instead of whiskey. In fact, root beer being my favorite soda, I've always wanted to brew the genuine article--which often contained sarsaparilla root in addition to sassafras and others.
So I felt somewhat disillusioned when a friend, who is into old westerns, reported that sarsaparilla was actually the 19th century's chief remedy for syphilis. In those days, advertisers would have euphemistically called it a "blood purifier." Since many of those Old West saloons were also whorehouses, we can conclude that it probably wasn't the abstainers who most needed that nonalcoholic beer!
Long after that particular cure has been dismissed by modern science, however, root beer remains popular with us teetotalers. Most of it is artificially flavored these days, though.
We used to make our own, from extract, on summer days back when I was a kid. Ours barely got the chance to fizz before we swigged it all down. That's probably just as well, since homemade root beer can contain small amounts of alcohol. And, due to its yeast content, it does have a tendency to explode if the pressure builds too high!
A number of plants have been called sarsaparilla, including the "false" type, which is actually an aralia. The most authentic, smilax regelii or "regal greenbrier," grows wild in Central America. In Dick Sand, Jules Verne writes that "On some heights the sarsaparilla abounded, a plant with fleshy tubercles, which formed an inextricable tangle."
It derives its common name from the Spanish zarzaparrila, which combines zarza ("shrub") and parrilla ("little grape vine"). It is, indeed, a perennial and prickly vine of the lily family. But only its clusters of black, blue, or red berries would give it any resemblance to the grape. The male or female flowers, which appear on separate plants, can be either green, yellow, or brown-ish. Those balls of blooms look more like an inconspicuous milkweed than a lily.
A diuretic and anti-inflammatory, sarsaparilla has also been used to treat skin diseases, arthritis, and urinary problems. Large doses should be avoided, however, as the plant's saponins (natural soaps) can irritate the stomach..
Sarsaparilla still enjoys a somewhat inflated reputation, as a few bodybuilders believe it to have the same effects as anabolic steroids. Some even claim that it converts into testosterone and increases libido. Most of this sounds pretty unlikely. So the plant may well remain--as in the very wild west--a symbol of masculine wishful thinking!
But our weakness for outlandish formulas apparently isn't new. As The Medical World of 1905 complained, "We seem to prefer the quack, the get-rich-quick schemes, to the trained and tried professional or regular business methods. The public will spend millions on Hood's Sarsaparilla and Paine's Celery Compound, in preference to paying the small fee charged by the physician."
Although the medical journal may have had a point, I retain my suspicions about how "small" those doctor's fees actually were. And herbal remedies, no matter how ineffective, don't kill people nearly as often as prescription medicines do.
I still plan to make genuine root beer one of these days. Though, considering the number of plants which could be included--wintergreen, birch, black cherry, etc.--it may take me a while to assemble the ingredients. In the meantime, I could always try chilling some of my father's sassafras tea, to make my very own version of Dad's Root Beer!
Smilax aspera Peruvana image is from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.