Sarsaparilla Root (Tu Fu Ling)

Smilax glabraIf you haven’t noticed, you probably won’t get to know what sarsaparilla root is. Actually this is a well-known Chinese herb called Tu Fu Ling or the Chinaroot. So, what is sarsaparilla root used for? Classified as one of top-grade ingredients in health regime and disease prevention and treatment, it protects the liver, reduces fever, and dispels pathogenic wind. Traditionally it is considered one of the best herbs for the treatments of syphilis, paralysis, severe sores, and so on. And today it is still found with anti-tumor effect. Apart from medicinal purpose, it can be used to make beer, pastry, and jelly like medical dessert guīlínggāo since it is rich in starch.

What is sarsaparilla root?

When used as medicine, it is usually refers to the dried tubers of Smilax glabra Roxb., a species in the lily family, liliaceae. In addition, sometimes it may also refer to the tubers of Smilax lanceifolia Roxb. var. opaca A. DC., Smilax mairei Levl., Heterosmilax japonica Kunth, Smilax japonica (Kunth) A. Gray, Smilax glaucochina Warb., or Smilax menispermoidea DC. Other names of this root also include Glabrous Greenbrier Rhizome, the Chinaroot, Rhizoma Smilacis Glabrae, tufuling, Smilax china, and the like. In China it is mainly distributed in Yangtze River basin and southern provinces. Usually harvested in summer and autumn, it should be cleaned and dried in the sun after the residual stems and fibrous roots have been removed. It is used raw medicinally.

Smilax glabra is climbing shrub. Tuberous roots are with obvious nodules and many fibrous roots. Stems are with no thorns. Leaves are alternate, leathery, lanceolate to elliptic-lanceolate, 6 to 20cm long, 1.2 to 5cm wide, and with acuminate apex, rounded base, and entire margin. Flowers are unisexual and dioecious; umbels are axillary and with very short peduncle; pedicel is slender and with many persistent triangle bracteoles; flowers are small, white, and about 4mm in diameter. Berry is red, spherical, and 6 to 8mm in diameter. Bloom time is from July to August and fruiting time is from September to October.

It contains astilbin, engeletin, 3-O-caffeoylshikimic acid, shikimic acid, ferulic acid, β-sitosterol, glucose, and more.

Sarsaparilla root benefits

It was once quite precious but now is cheaper since the yield is way bigger. These days, sarsaparilla-based dishes, e.g. smilax pork soup, are very popular, thanks to its versatile medicinal uses. So, what is sarsaparilla root good for? In fact, it has long been a major medicine for the treatment of syphilis since ancient times. Apart from that, it is widely used for carbuncle, scrofula, headache, knee effusion, acute dysentery, leptospirosis, eczema in children, nasosinusitis, maxillary sinusitis, and so on.

Since it is good for women health, now let’s look into this matter in order to figure out how it works. Many gynecological disorders are somewhat related to menstruation. As a matter of fact, the menstruation can affect women’s physique. In turn, the poor physique affects menstruation. For example, the declining physical fitness and adverse physiological symptoms like anemia would occur in some girls because of a lack of nutrition, which apparently is the main source for the dramatic spurt of growth of an adolescent girl’s body. For a girl with such physical fitness, taking sarsaparilla is way to go since it can help her recuperate. What’s more, it can prevent vulnerable or frail women from gynecological diseases, especially gynecological inflammation. Another health benefit should be mentioned is its neutral medicinal properties, which are able to help heat constitution get cool and cold constitution get warm.

It is worth noting that smilax and Fu Ling (Poria) are two completely different herbs – poria is kind of fungus that grows by absorbing the nutrient mainly from pine roots and trunk while sarsaparilla plant is an evergreen climbing shrub.

Modern pharmacological actions of the Chinaroot

1) The astilbin contained has obvious diuretic, analgesic effect;
2) It has inhibitory action on Staphylococcus aureus, hemolytic streptococcus, E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Salmonella typhi, Shigella flexneri, Corynebacterium diphtheriae and Bacillus anthraci;
3) It has a certain inhibitory effect on liver cancer and transplanted tumors;
4) The animal testing can infer that it selectively suppresses the immune response by affecting the inflammatory process of T lymphocytes releasing lymphokines;
5) It is capable of easing mercury poisoning;
6) It obviously antagonizes gossypol toxicity.

Sample smilax recipes on herbal remedies

The Chinese Pharmacopoeia indicates that it is sweet, tasteless in flavor and neutral nature. It goes to meridians of liver and stomach. Primary functions are to remove dampness, detox, and ease joint movement. Basic sarsaparilla root uses and indications include stranguria with turbid discharge due to damp heat, abnormal vaginal discharge, carbuncles, scrofula, scabies, syphilis, limb spasm caused by mercury poisoning, arthralgia and myalgia. Recommended sarsaparilla root dosage is from 15 to 60 grams in decoction. Besides, you can buy it in the forms of sarsaparilla root tea, tincture, supplement, capsules, extract, drink, soda, beer, and the like.

1) Tu Bu Xie Tang from Jing Yue Quan Shu (Jingyue’s Complete Works). It is used alone to treat limb spasm and aching pain due to syphilis or mercury poisoning for the treatment of syphilis;

2) Sou Feng Jie Du Tang from Ben Cao Gang Mu (Compendium of Materia Medica). It is formulated with Yi Yi Ren (Coix Seed), Fang Feng (Radix Saposhnikoviae), Mu Gua (Quince Fruit), etc. to cure limb spasm caused by mercury poisoning;

3) Tu Fu Ling Jiu from Wan Shi Jia Chao Fang (Wan’s Heirloom Prescriptions). It works with glutinous rice to brew wine for wandering pain, sores, and ringworm due to pathogenic wind.

Clinical research of sarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla and its preparations are commonly used for the treatment of syphilis and gonorrhea clinically. And it achieves better results on both improving the clinical symptoms and changing serum. In addition, in recent years it has been applied for the treatment of various diseases, such as erysipelas, acute orchitis, cardiac carcinoma, arrhythmia, gout, psoriasis, plane warts, trichomoniasis vaginitis, pyelonephritis, hepatitis B, acute tonsillitis, leptospirosis, chronic lead poisoning, troublesome withdrawal symptoms and opium dependence symptoms.

a) 79 cases of erysipelas have been treated with the decoction of sarsaparilla, wild chrysanthemum, honeysuckle vine, Japanese knotweed, and speranskia. The patients were workers engaging in fish, meat processing and the erysipelas-like acute infectious disease were caused by the invasion of bacillus erysipelatos-suis. After the affected area has been soaked and washed, 72 cases were cured and 6 cases improved;

b) 26 cases of acute orchitis have been treated with sarsaparilla powder and smashed cactus (2:1) in combination with a little egg white. It features redness, swelling, hotness, pain, but with no pus. After the affected area has been applied with this mixture, all of them were cured;

C) 28 cases of esophageal carcinoma have been treated with the combination of sarsaparilla, Coix Seed, Mai Ya (Barley Malt), Wu Mei (Mume Fruit), Trichosanthes Kirilowii (Gua Lou), etc. And it could help improve symptoms and prolong survival period.

Sarsaparilla root side effects, drug interactions and contraindications

So, is sarsaparilla root safe during pregnancy? The rule of thumb for the health regime of pregnant women is to stabilize. Hence, generally food or medicine with a certain irritation is not suitable for them since these ingredients may break the stability of the body of a pregnant woman. Luckily, because this herb is of neutral nature taking right amount of it won’t cause problem. Instead, eating it, from the perspective of TCM, can help get rid of congenital disease.

However, please note that eating too much of it may increase the risk of habitual abortion. Besides, although it is non-toxic, please use it under the guidance of a doctor since after all it is a drug.


a) Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Journal of Chinese Medicine), 2001; 11:649;
b) Journal of Chinese Medicine, 2001; 11:64;
c) Ji Cheng Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Journal of Basic Level Chinese Medicine), 2000; 1:57.

One thought on “Sarsaparilla Root (Tu Fu Ling)

  1. Dennis E. McFarland

    I am trying to find the correct sarsaparilla root for (topical) used to get rid of psoriasis.


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