Anybody who is a fan of old westerns knows the stereotype of the old timer in the salon asking for a sarsaparilla. Aside from whiskey and beer, this old fashioned cousin of root beer was a favorite drink in the old west. Made from a combination of sassafras and sarsaparilla, it was especially tasty and refreshing drink in the hot dry day and was thought to help purify the body by inducing sweating. This saloon drink went on to become a popular soft drink flavor, and can still be found in specialty stores today, although most are now made with artificial ingredients.
Before is became synonymous with the old west, sarsaparilla’s detoxifying benefits were utilized for a number of ailments including liver disease and syphilis. Native to the Western Hemisphere and favoring the hot and dry climates of Latin and South America, Sarsaparilla was first introduced to Europe during the late fifteenth century. From the 16th Century up until the middle Eighteen Hundreds, Europeans and their American Descendents put the thorny wooden vine to use as a blood purifier, tonic diuretic and sweat inducer.
During the latter half of the Nineteenth Century until the early Twentieth, Sarsaparilla was widely used as an additive to many patent medicines, including many who which were the Victorian Age equivalents to body building supplements and Viagra. This was due to the notion that the root actually contained testosterone. This one time belief that the herb actually contained the hormone that helped controlled a man’s sex drive may help explain why it was also so popular with the old timers in the saloons (many of which doubled as brothels).
While modern research has disproved the idea of actual male hormones in the plant, they did find steroidal saponins which are believed to mimic hormones, indicating that the cowboys and snake oil peddlers might have been on to something after all.
Today, sarsaparilla is prescribed by homeopathic practitioners as a treatment inflammation and to help cleanse the liver. With slight anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, it can also be used as a treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Dried sarsaparilla root can be found in many health food stores and if you look hard enough, you just might be able to find old timey sarsaparilla soda also.