Catbriers, Sarsaparilla and Transcontinental Transmission |

By Steven Foster |

You know the plant. If you’ve ever walked in the woods in the Ozarks, you trip over it. It tears your clothing. It rips into your flesh as you unwittingly trudge along. When hiking or clearing brush at your yard’s edge, you talk to this plant—generally in loud expletives.

Catbrier tips can be eaten like asparagus, though this one was too beautiful to pick.
Catbrier tips can be eaten like asparagus, though this one was too beautiful to pick.

We call it catbrier, greenbrier, bullbrier—members of the genus Smilax in the greenbrier family (Smilacaceae). The genus Smilax has upwards of 350 species, mostly a tropical plant group with outliers extending into temperate climates. There are 20 species in North America (north of Mexico). I suspect 7 or 8 of them occur in Northwest Arkansas. I’ve never known a botanist who could give me a clear explanation of the differences between one catbrier and another. If you look at the books covering the flora of this part of the country, not one of them agree on scientific names, descriptions, illustrated characteristics or keys to identifiable features.

Some species of Smilax from Central and South America are familiar at least in name as the source of sarsaparilla. In the commercial trade this includes bulk materials called Mexican sarsaparilla, Honduras sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla, and so forth. We will call those “Smilax officinalis” as a means of expressing the fact that nobody really seems to know what is the true source of sarsaparilla.

Smilax hispida, a well-armed vine.
Smilax hispida, a well-armed vine.

Sarsaparilla was first exported from South and Central America to Seville around 1550. Like sassafras it was touted as a “blood purifier”. Columbus introduced smallpox to the Americas, but in turn may have brought back a disease once known as “French pox”. Coincidentally, a disease not known to classical medical writers made it’s first appearance in the form of an epidemic in the year 1495—the same year Columbus returned from the Americas. The disease is called syphilis. In the 1500s and 1600s shiploads of sassafras bark and sarsaparilla roots were exported from the Americas to Europe, and made into a tonic blood purifier called root beer to treat syphilis, a gift from New World indigenous peoples to their European conquerors. Think about that continental karma the next time you trip over a catbrier.

Smilax hispida. Note the irregular small teeth on leaf edge.
Smilax hispida. Note the irregular small teeth on leaf edge.

Adapted from Nature of Eureka column in the 21 May 2014 issue of the Eureka Springs Independent Newsletter

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Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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