Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dyet Drinks, Smilax, and Sarsaparilla

HS 232 folio 31 contains a specimen of Smilax auriculata Walter, commonly known as earleaf greenbrier. (auriculata = eared) Catesby left us a note, which I have transcribed thus: “This I think is a kind of Smilax. It's called here China Root and is much in use for Dyet Drinks and is of great esteem for its virtues.”
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That last word gives me pause. “Virtues” makes sense, but I am not 100% certain that my reading is correct. Could it read “baskets”? “bidness”? “brisket”?

None of those seem likely. I’ll stick with virtues.

Anyway, the more intriguing aspect of this note is that it mentions “dyet drinks.” Of all things! Did Catesby watch his weight? Could the Coca Cola company create a new “all natural” product based on Smilax?

Our friend Google led me to enlightenment, as it always does. Smilax regelli, a related plant, seems to have been the original Sarsaparilla, and it appears that the name sarsaparilla has attached itself to various other species of Smilax. Smilax regelii grows in central and South America, but Catesby would have known about it because it came to Europe in 1500 and was widely touted as a cure for syphilis and rheumatism. Various species of smilax were used to promote sweating, as a general tonic, and to cure anything else that might be troubling you. Native Americans used Smilax to ward off illness and turn weakness to strength.

Our plant, Smilax auriculata, has tubers that can be brewed into a nice drink. Then there is this nugget of wisdom: "Smilax auriculata ... was the principle source of a delicious jelly, called "red countie," formerly prepared by Indians of the southeastern United States from the fecula contained in its root stalks and tubers."

What about “China Root”? There is a Chinese species of smilax called Smilax china. It’s a traditional Chinese remedy for gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases. I is said to be a diuretic, febrifuge, tonic, and anti-inflammatory, useful for flatulence, leprosy, epilepsy, and insanty, among other conditions. Believe it or not, Chinese medical researchers have just verified that it is a useful treatment for kidney disease. (Chen, 2011, Anti-hyperuricemic and nephroprotective effects of Smilax china L.) Smilax china commonly goes by the name China root; it is also called madhunuhi.

My quick search has not revealed to me why Catesby used the common name China Root in 1721 to refer to an American plant. It suggests that the generic name Smilax and the plants of that genus were in wide enough use in Europe for all of them to blend together.

And the dyet drinks? The drink sarsaparilla became popular in New Orleans in the 1800s, and it's certainly a standby in old-timey literature that features soda fountains. Pharmacists would brew Smilax root with licoric, cassia (maybe cinnamon if they could get it?), ginger, cloves, and coriander, which they would then mix with syrup, honey, tincture of ginger, and citric acid to create a refreshing beverage. Could be worth a try.