Jump to content
The Corroboree

Recommended Posts

I was out walking in the bush yesterday and happened upon a very purple form of Sweet Sarsaparilla which I thought might be worth posting up here. Sweet Sarsaparilla is an interesting plant found all over the place in the bush but rarely in cultivation; the Indigenous Australians used it as food source and sweetener, and was used regularly by white settlers in the form of a tea as a tonic and an antiscorbutic. Rescent research suggests it is high in antioxidants.


Sweet Sarsaparilla - Purple Form. Can't tell why it is so purple, but it is in full sun which is pretty unusual for these plants.

Sarsaparilla Vines (link to Arrawarra Culture Website)

The leaves of the sweet sarsaparilla (Smilax glyciphylla)

are a common and popular snack. According to the Garby

Elders, only the soft, young, red leaves should be eaten.

These leaves have a very strong, sweet flavour and are

also used to make sarsaparilla tea. The leaves of a related

species, Austral sarsaparilla (Smilax australis), also known

as ‘dinner leaf’, can be sucked to soothe a dry mouth (see

Fact Sheet 15). The sturdy prickles on the stems of Austral

sarsaparilla give it several common names: ‘wait-a-while’

and ‘barbwire vine’. The two species of sarsaparilla vine are

very important story and medicine plants.

Thanks to Darklight for highlighting this information over at the Sarsaparilla related Cissus antarctica thread.


Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales

with sixty-five plates of non descript animals, birds, lizards, serpents, curious cones of trees and other natural productions by

John White Esquire, (1757/8-1832)

Surgeon-General to the [First Fleet and the] Settlement [at Port Jackson]




This is a tree or shrub whose leaves only we have seen, but from them we judge it to belong to the genus Smilax. For want of the stem we cannot settle its specific character. These leaves are about two inches long, ovatolanceolate, pointed, entire, marked with three longitudinal ribs, and many transverse elevated veins, smooth and shining above, glaucous beneath, with a thick cartilaginous edge of the substance of the ribs. The leaves have the taste of liquorice root accompanied with bitter. They are said to make a kind of tea, not unpleasant to the taste, and good for the scurvy. The plant promises much in the last respect, from its bitter as a tonic, as well as the quantity of saccharine matter it contains.

Leaves of this plant are represented on the same plate with the Tea Tree. A. is the front, B. the back of a leaf.


Plate 24. Tea Tree of New South Wales


Over at Australian Bushfoods Forum Mulga has this to say about Sweet Sarsaparilla:

The main sweet tasting constituent is a glycoside called, glycyphyllin.

Though it is also reported (and confirmed by me and others I've spoken to) that there are some areas where the plant has no sweetness, apparently only in the northern part of its range (from NE NSW into Qld).

This glycoside is a combination of a dihydrochalcone (a type of flavonoid) called phloretin, and a sugar molecule (called rhamnose). Phloretin is most well known as occuring as a glycoside called phlorizin in apple skins. Although in that case its taste is just bitter, not sweet. There are numerous studies that have studied the pharmacology of phloretin concerning anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, glucose metabolism, heart disease, allergies, cytotoxicity (anti-cancer) and even hair growth. There are probably other related flavonoids as well in Smilax glyciphylla, although none so distinctive in taste. Glycyphyllin is also related to neohesperidin from some citrus species (types of cumquat) with sweet tasting skins, other citrus have bitter tasting flavonoid glycosides. In the past neohesperidin and related compounds were sometimes known as bio-flavonoids, which seems to give some basis to the use of this plant in something like scurvy, given what we understand of vitamin C and the bioflavanoids now.



The presence of a phloretin rhamnoside in some samples of Smilax glycyphylla leaf has been confirmed, and its detailed structure elucidated. Other samples of the same species are devoid of glycyphyllin but contain the xanthone mangiferin.


Mangiferin also has antioxidant properties, and shows anti-microbial activity.

  • Like 3

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I also found this interesting story online



In the Australian bush there is a stiff climbing plant with hard prickles sparsely placed along its entire length, and with broad shining leaves that have little tendrils at their bases. The vine climbs trees and twines itself about shrubs in such a way that it often makes travelling in the bush impossible.

It is named smilax. One variety is without prickles and is known as Smilax glycyphylla. It is also known as Australian Sarsaparilla, and from it our grandmothers (if they were in Australia) brewed a very refreshing drink. Children often chew the leaves of Smilax glycyphylla, and if I remember aright, the taste is at first by no means pleasant, but after a while becomes quite agreeable to the palate.

The aborigines of the Tuggarah Lakes district knew this plant very well, and their story is that a great ancestor was one day pushing his way through a jungle on the bank of a creek and a prickled smilax scraped his shoulder. He did not feel pain at first, but after a while, when the perspiration got into the tiny cuts, he became very angry, believing that he was bewitched. As well as being angry he was frightened. He had a firm belief in a sort of fairy or goblin which he knew as a "wullundigong," which signifies a "little man of the bush!"

He stopped at the foot of a big tree, and peered up amongst its branches and leaves to see if he could detect any of these little men. He did not wait long, for he was not at all certain that the wullundigong, if he were there and saw him looking, would not be able to do him a very great harm. He saw none, of course, but he did see the smilax with the prickles climbing all over a clump of Lilly-pillies just in front of him, and making a thick, dark arbor. To be sure that there were no little men in there he pushed into the place, and of course the little thorns of the smilax scratched him again, and the pain was in the cuts at once.

Then he knew what was the matter. He knew that there were not any wullundigongs troubling him at all, but that there was a plant just as bad and not able to fight. He wished that there were no such plants and he wondered what he could do to rid the land of them.

He had recourse to the clay, in the virtues of which the blacks had such faith. He was not a sorcerer, but he had been allowed to attend the corroborees that were the schools at which sorcerers were taught much of their arts. A great deal of the power of a sorcerer was not the result of any teaching. The markings were. The incantations were. The reasons for there being any sorcerers were. But much more was the invention of each individual humbug, and he generally hid himself for a time while he thought out his ways of frightening the rest. That made a real sorcerer. This man had not done that. He simply had seen that part of the profession that was taught, and he believed in it all.

When he was properly marked he muttered the incantations and waited for a result. That came only in the form of a thought.

He touched some of the glabrous leaves of the offending plant. He slowly passed his fingers along the whole length of the vine.

The prickles disappeared. The leaves changed. They became smaller. He was emboldened and he tried its taste. He found that to be to his liking. He took some to the great people of his tribe and they tasted them and found them to be as he had said. No one was forbidden to eat of the smilax, and everyone from that time took just as he pleased. In that way it was thought the plant would eventually pass out of existence. But the man did not reckon on the fact that he did not touch all, nor did he remember that no article of diet was utterly destroyed. The totem system prevented that. When no foodstuff was eaten by every one (by that wise decree that had been handed down through the ages, but was reserved for those only whose totem it was not, and when that decree was attended with dire pains and magical penalties), then no foodstuff could be entirely eliminated.

So we still have the smilax, one variety without prickles and the other, which some people call "lawyer vine" though there are other "lawyer vines," still with them.


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

The purple foliage might be the result of winter/colder weather..

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Maybe, but none of the other plants in the area show that colouring. The main difference is that it is quite exposed to the sun and away from taller vegetation. I was wondering whether it had been cut off at the base and kind of died like that, but it's a bit of a tangle down there to see. I will go back soon and have another look, maybe have a little taste if it has new growth yet.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

will throw up a photo of a green sarsaparilla, or what has been told/sold to me as one, native to aus.

very strong smell lurvely..

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Cool thread, cool plant, thanks. I heard on the adelaide gardening show this morning that purple foliage can be the result of cold as it prevents the plant absorbing phosphorus from the soil. If it is exposed to the sun, it is likely also to be more exposed to the cold as well.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

My internet trawling has yielded nothing in the way of propagation from seed. It was mentioned somewhere that certain species of Smilax need their seed to go through a cold shock and can take over a year to germinate.

If anyone has had any experience germinating this plant I'd love to here what you've done.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

According to Seed Collection of Australian Native Plants (R. Murray, 1993) they should be soaked for a few hours in water just taken off the boil prior to sowing. I haven't tried this yet though.

Edited by toast

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now