Native Sarsparilla (Part 13)

Smilax glyciphylla [Plant & new growth] 20221211_151216 sml.jpg

New growth on sweet sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla) as it clambers its way into the sun. © JPM, 2022.

A drink better than cola? There is none other than the glorious sarsaparilla!

Names

Our native sarsaparilla is related to species with more than 350 specimens of worldwide distribution, from the Americas, Caribbean, Africa and Asia, all hailing from the genus Smilax (S.). Due to this global range, the plant has developed several English names, the most common of which, zarzaparrilla (sarsaparilla in English), comes from the Jamaican species, S. ornata and S. regelii. The plant is also known, particularly in North America, as catbriers, greenbriers, prickly-ivy and simply by the scientific name, smilax.

Australia has three prominent species, S. glyciphylla, sweet sarsaparilla, notable for its especially sweet leaves, S. calophylla and S. australis, the latter of which is also widely known as lawyer vine, barbed-wire vine or wait-a-while due to its thorny liana (vineage).

Habitat and Range

Sarsaparilla is a plant of the tropics and subtropics, although some of the Australian species, particularly the sweet sars (S. glyciphylla) can be found in temperate regions as far south as eastern Victoria. S. calophylla is found almost exclusively on the Top End and Cape York peninsula. Look for native sarsaparillas in most tropical or subtropical rainforest regions, temperate rainforest, as well as wet sclerophyll (eucalyptus) woodland and heaths.

Sarsaparilla prefers sheltered underbrush due to its ability to climb on other plants, but it will always make its way into the sun wherever it is growing. Vineage can grow in excess of 8 metres in length, usually between 3 and 5 metres from the root of the plant which is often obscured or inaccessible underneath sandstone or granite outcrops.

Figure 1. Distribution of Smilax (all species) around the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Smilax distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Scrambling, woody liana (vine) between 1-8 metres in length
  • May have brambles on the stems (S. australis and S. calophylla)
  • Leaves are 5-15 cm in length, rigid, tough and have three prominent veins running from stem to tip
  • Leaf new growth is often red with white undersides with the three lateral veins distinct
  • Flowers appear in inflorescences (a cluster emanating from a single point), mostly in summer but can be any time of the year
  • Fruit start as small green berries with undeveloped, chewy but sweet white seeds
  • Fruit ripen to a deep black with 2-3 orange-red, hard seeds
  • Crushing leaves and steeping them in water will turn the water a golden yellow colour (S. glyciphylla)
I was very surprised not to find this plant mentioned at all in Tim Low's field guide! I must thus preface this article with a tip of the Akubra to the anonymous author over at survival.ark.net.au who first brought my attention to the edible properties of this useful plant [LINK].

While the Australian bush is home to many hundreds of species of vine, the native sarsparilla tends to stand out amongst them all. The leaves are quite distinctive and the most telling identifying feature. While leaves can vary in shape, from broad to thin, sarsparilla has three (rarely, five) prominent, conspicuous veins running down the entire length of the leaf from stem to tip. Stems/branches will also sprout tendrils opposite the leaf stems, often 8-20 cm in length, which coil over everything they touch, and the S. australis variety also has a copious number of briers (as do several North American and Caribbean species).

Figure 2. Sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) with thin, long leaves. Notice the three clearly prominent veins extending the length of the leaf. This specimen also has clusters of fruit just about to ripen. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [foliage & fruit] sml.jpg


Figure 3. Sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) sprouts tendrils opposite their leaf stems and does not have brambles/thorns. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [tendril] 20221211_153829 sml.jpg


Figure 4. New growth of sweet sarsparilla is a distinctive red colour with white undersides (compare figure 11 below). Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [new growth] 20221211_145303 sml.jpg


Figure 5. Leaves of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) are thicker and fatter than sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla). Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [plant] 20221211_153740 sml.jpg


Figure 6. Close-up of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) foliage. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [leaf] 20221211_143552 sml.jpg


Figure 7. The tendrils of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) emerge from the opposite side of the leaf stem. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.

Smilax australis [tendril] 20221211_153815 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) has sharp brambles along its vines, a key distinguishing feature from the other Australian species. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax australis [brambles] 20221211_143915 sml.jpg


Figure 9. Cape York sarsaparilla (S. calophylla) leaves with flower buds. Note the coiling tendrils, centre top. Atlas of Living Australia. © H. Innes, 2022.
Smilax calophylla [leaves - ATLAS - H. Innes, 2022].jpeg


Native sarsaparilla is a dioecious plant, although some are hermaphroditic, meaning they usually have specified male and female specimens. Both genders will put forth flowers between early December and May, but it is the female flowers that will set into clumps of green berries which turn red-black as they ripen. The fruits seem to be edible both unripe and ripe, although ripe fruits develop one to three hard, orange-red seeds which are chewy white masses in the unripe fruits.

Figure 10. Leaves, flowers and both unripe and ripe fruits of S. australis. Atlas of Living Australia. © D. & B. Wood, 1996.
Smilax australis [flowers & foliage - Atlas Liv. Aus].jpeg


Figure 11. Close-up of female flowers for sweet sarsparilla (S. glyciphylla). Also evident is the white undersides on red new leaf growth. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [flowers] 20221211_151325 sml.jpg


Figure 12. Inflorescence of male S. calophylla flowers in the Top End. Atlas of Living Australia. © Sworboys, 2015.
Smilax calophylla [flower close up - Atlas Liv. Aus].jpeg


Figure 13. S. calophylla after ripening into clumps of edible berries. Atlas of Living Australia. © Anonymous, 2000.
Smilax calophylla [fruit & leaves - Atlas Liv. Aus.].jpeg


Uses

Fruit can be enjoyed straight from the vine at any stage of ripeness, but preferably after they reach at least 0.7 cm in size (the tiny, just-pollinated berries are astringent). They are very pleasant eating and my favourite bush food item to date. I have tried both unripe and ripe berries of sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla): the former are green and the seeds are an undeveloped white mass (see figure 14 below) which can be chewed whole and are quite sweet; the latter are dark black, stain the fingers and tongue purple (like ripe mulberries), and contain one to three unpleasant, tough, orange-red seeds (see figure 15 below). Ripe fruits are best gently crushed and seeped by the dozen in boiling water and drunk as a tea, which tastes like a mild version of sarsaparilla soft drink.

Figure 14. Halved, unripe fruit of sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) showing the white, undeveloped seeds. See also figure 2 above. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [bitten fruit zoomed].jpg


Figure 15. Halved, ripe fruit of sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) showing the hard, developed seeds. Sheldon Walking Track, Turramurra, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glyciphylla [ripe fruit] sml.jpg


Leaves, especially of the sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla), are best used fresh, torn and then gently bruised in a mortar and pestle before steeping in hot water (alongside the fruits, if available) and brewed as a tea. I have found that gently crushing 3-4 leaves, fresh or dried, with a pestle, then steeping the leaves in boiling water in a teapot until they soften, helps to release their gentle sweetness and sarsaparilla tang. Leaves can be dried and crushed into a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle for use in teabags. The resulting brew is a gentle yellow colour from the abundance of quercetin; the longer you steep it the more vibrant the colour. The flavour of fresh, red new growth is the strongest as they immediately impart their sweet zing (sterols) to the infusion. The tea can leave a gentle tingle on the tongue and throat for some time after drinking. I am not fond of southern sarsaparilla (S. australis) for tea as its leaves result in a bland, tasteless infusion; that species is better utilised for its berries.

Figure 16. Sarsaparilla leaf tea with dried leaves (S. glyciphylla). Steeped for 24 hours, this brew was surprisingly strong and tangy. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax glciphylla [Tea] sml.jpg


Roots can be dried, crushed and brewed (root beer style) into the famous sarsaparilla beverage, although one is best to do more research on the specifics of this process. I have not yet harvested a root due to their typical concealment within the crevices of Sydney's sandstone bedrock. Carbonated beverages can also be made from root brews. Roots may also be eaten raw or cooked for their potent supply of starch, as well as its alleged aphrodisiac qualities. Cooked root starch may be converted into dark carbohydrate syrup via a process I am unfamiliar with (probably similar to sugar beet syrup extraction). Dried roots may be taken as a herbal tonic for sore throats, coughs and nasal-pharyngeal infections and have long been used for this purpose in herbal medicine everywhere this plant is found. Apparently the recommended dose is 1 tsp of ground dried root, steeped in boiled water for 30 minutes. Note that digging up the root can kill the entire plant and its dozens of vines dangling everywhere from that central point. I advise harvesting leaves along with the root to avoid unnecessary waste.

Sarsaparilla has some very useful essential oils, plant acids, trace minerals and other potent phytochemicals which make it of medicinal interest. Quercetin (responsible for the yellow colour of the leaf tea), shikimic and sarsapic acids, anti-inflammatory saponins, plant sterols to promote gut health, the anti-inflammatory phytochemicals diosgenin, tigogenin and asperagenin, and minerals like zinc, selenium, chromium, magnesium, calcium and iron can all be obtained from all parts of the plant listed above. Most of the minerals and saponins are in the roots; quercetin, acids, sterols, and phytochemicals are in the leaves and berries.

Also note that the North American sarsparilla soft drink is often made from birch bark tar, not the Smilax plant root proper, so the two can taste different. Real sars brewed from real Smilax roots and/or fruit is so much better!

Caution: Look-alikes!

Australia also happens to be home to a native species of "false sarsaparilla," Hardenbergia (with numerous cultivars, e.g. H. violaceae, H. monophylla, H. comptoniana, etc), so called due to the efforts of early explorers to use the roots and leaves of this look-alike as a substitute for Smilax plants. This look-alike is otherwise known as "happy wanderer" due to its excellent sprawling, wall-climbing habits. Unlike true sarsaparilla, Hardenbergia has only one prominent central leaf vein on the leaf; its flowers are sprays of purple (rarely, white), pea-like flowers which turn into green, pea-like pods which dry out and turn brown when ripe, containing 4-10 black seeds. Whether the early colonists were successful in their 'false sars' experiments with this plant's roots remains uncertain, and I cannot recommend using this look-alike for any purpose other than adorning a wall or rock ledge as a fantastic native flowering creeper.

Figure 17. Sweet sarsparilla (S. glyciphylla), top, growing alongside Hardenbergia violaceae, bottom. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Smilax vs Hardenbergia 20221211_145420 sml.jpg


Figure 18. The flowers of Hardensbergia (H. violaceae, pictured) look nothing like sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.). Atlas of Living Australia. © Sarilla, 2021.

Hardenbergia violaceae [flowers - ATLAS - Sarilla, 2021].jpeg


Another creeping look-alike common where Smilax grows is the introduced pest species Asparagus asparagoides, commonly known as bridal creeper for its 19th century use in wedding flower arrangements. Its tapered leaves and fruit look similar to sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla), but are easily distinguished with details. Bridal creeper does not have the three prominent lateral veins on its leaves; it does not grow tendrils or brambles; its fruit have three distinctive lobes/segments; and the fruits ripen from green to an opaque white-pink-red. They are likely to be poisonous; bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) is a close relative of the asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus, Asparagus plumosus, etc.) which has similar, but poisonous, red berries. True Smilax fruit always ripens green-red-black. It grows from a thick rhizome clump with dozens of watery tubers attached, making it difficult to exterminate.

Figure 19. Bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) could potentially be confused with sweet sarsaparilla (S. glyciphylla) by a novice forager. Notice they do not have the distinctive three lateral leaf veins of sarsaparilla (Smilax) plants (compare figures 2, 5-6 and 9 above), and the berries are about 30-50% larger. Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Asparagus asparagoides [Smilax lookalike] 20221211_142635 sml.jpg


Figure 20. Bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) flowers look nothing like sarsparilla (Smilax spp.). Note the complete lack of tendrils, too. Atlas of Living Australia. © M. Fagg, 2010.
Asparagus asparagoides [ Flowers - ATLAS - M. Fagg, 2010].jpeg


Figure 21. Bridal creeper (Asparagus asparagoides) fruit at various stages of ripeness. Note the lobes on the fruit; sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.) fruit are round with no lobes. This plant tends to die back to its rhizomes/tubers in winter after fruiting (note the yellowing leaves); sarsaparilla does not. Atlas of Living Australia. © N. Green, 2022.
Asparagus asparagoides [Fruit - ATLAS - N. Green, 2022].jpeg
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