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Mabberley (1987) regards this family as comprising 225 species in 10 genera, whilst Brummitt (1992) includes only 2 genera (Smilax L. and Heterosmilax Kunth), the remainder being placed in the Petermanniaceae, Philesiaceae, and Rhipogonaceae. Members of this family have in the past been considered to belong to the Liliaceae. They are found in tropical and warm temperate regions and are mostly climbing shrubs or lianes.

Some species, for example Smilax aspera L. (prickly ivy) and Lapageria rosea Ruiz & Pav. (Chilean bellflower), are occasionally found in cultivation as ornamentals.

The dried roots of certain South and Central American Smilax species are the source of sarsaparilla, which has been used medicinally, but is now used mainly in confectionary and soft drinks. The following species are sources of sarsaparilla (Pereira 1842, Trease & Evans 1966, Wallis 1967):

Smilax aristolochiaefolia Mill. — yields Vera Cruz or Mexican sarsaparillas
Smilax febrifuga Kunth — yields Guayaquil sarsaparilla
Smilax medica Schldl. & Cham. — yields Vera Cruz or Mexican sarsaparillas
Smilax officinalis Kunth — yields Jamaica, Lima, and Honduras sarsaparillas
Smilax ornata Lemaire — yields Jamaica or Costa Rica sarsaparillas
Smilax regelii Killip & C.V.Morton — yields Honduras sarsaparilla
Smilax siphilitica Willd.-- yields Brazilian sarsaparilla 
Members of this family are thorny climbers capable of inflicting mechanical injury.

Petermannia cirrosa F.Muell.

The plant is a woody climber with a prickly stem. The genus Petermannia F.Muell. is monotypic and is found in New South Wales (Willis 1973). It was formerly included in the Dioscoreaceae.

Smilax L.

About 200 species are found in tropical and warm temperate regions (Mabberley 1987).

Sarsaparilla of commerce is derived from the dried roots of Smilax species [see above]. According to Pereira (1842), sarsaparilla is given with good effect in papular, vesicular, pustular, and tubercular skin diseases, of a chronic kind, when they occur in enfeebled and emaciated constitutions. Pereira (1842) also describes its use in the treatment of syphilis, but notes also that many practitioners consider sarsaparilla to possess no remedial properties. Trease & Evans (1966) believe that, because of its content of steroidal saponins, sarsaparilla may act by stimulating the absorption of other drugs.

The following species (and probably many others) are thorny and can cause mechanical injury particularly about the ankles of walkers (Hunt 1968/70, Irvine 1961, Mitchell & Rook 1979, Schmidt 2001 — personal observation):

Smilax aspera L. — Prickly Ivy
Smilax bona-nox L.
Smilax excelsa L.
Smilax havanensis Jacq.
Smilax kraussiana Meisn.
Smilax rotundifolia L. — Horse Brier, Bull Brier 

Smilax china L.
Bamboo Briar

This plant is the source of China root or bamboo briar root which, according to Nadkarni (1976), is used in India like sarsaparilla as an antisyphilitic and for skin diseases including leprosy.

Smilax glabra Roxb.

According to Nadkarni (1976), the large tuberous root is used in India for sores and syphilis. Rao (1981) also describes the use of the juice of the leaves by the Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya in India as an application for skin diseases, and notes that the leaves are sometimes dried and powdered then mixed with oil before application to the skin.

Smilax kraussiana Meisn.

According to Irvine (1961) and Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962), the Bemba wash abscesses with water in which the leaf has been warmed. A number of other uses are noted, including the use of the root for the treatment of venereal disease.

Smilax lanceaefolia Roxb.

According to Nadkarni (1976), the large tuberous root is used in India for sores.

Smilax macrophylla Roxb.
[syn. Smilax ovalifolia Roxb.]
Wild Sarsaparilla

According to Nadkarni (1976), the root is used as in India and Nepal as a substitute for sarsaparilla for the treatment of syphilis and gonorrhoea.

Smilax zeylanica L.

According to Nadkarni (1976), a decoction of the root is given for swellings, abscesses and boils.


  • Brummitt RK (1992) Vascular Plant Families and Genera. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens [WorldCat]
  • Hunt P (Ed.) (1968/70) The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of Gardening. London: Marshall Cavendish [WorldCat]
  • Irvine FR (1961) Woody Plants of Ghana. With special reference to their uses. London: Oxford University Press [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Mabberley DJ (1987) The Plant-Book. A portable dictionary of the higher plants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Mitchell J and Rook A (1979) Botanical Dermatology. Plants and plant products injurious to the skin. Vancouver: Greengrass, p. 647.
  • Nadkarni AK (1976) Dr. K. M. Nadkarni's Indian Materia Medica. With ayurvedic, unani-tibbi, siddha, allopathic, homeopathic, naturopathic & home remedies, appendices & indexes, Revised enlarged and reprinted 3rd edn, Vols 1 & 2. Bombay: Popular Prakashan [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Pereira J (1842) Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, 2nd edn, Vols 1 & 2. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Rao RR (1981) Ethnobotany of Meghalaya: medicinal plants used by Khasi and Garo tribes. Economic Botany 35(1): 4-9 [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Trease GE, Evans WC (1966) A Textbook of Pharmacognosy, 9th edn. London: Baillière, Tindall and Cassell [WorldCat]
  • Wallis TE (1967) Textbook of Pharmacognosy, 5th edn. London: J & A Churchill [WorldCat]
  • Watt JM, Breyer-Brandwijk MG (1962) The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Being an account of their medicinal and other uses, chemical composition, pharmacological effects and toxicology in man and animal, 2nd edn. Edinburgh: E & S Livingstone [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Willis JC (1973) A Dictionary of the Flowering Plants and Ferns, 8th edn. (Revised by Airy Shaw HK). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [WorldCat]

Richard J. Schmidt

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