Smilax aristolochiaefolia is a species within the Smilax genus of climbing plants, which is characterized by its heart-shaped leaves and deep-reaching roots.
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave Smilax its name in 1753, echoing Greek legend in his choice of nomenclature.
There are various versions of the myth he drew on but all centre around a young man called Krokus and a nymph named Smilax. The pair fell in love with one another but were punished for it since the gods didn’t allow mortals and nymphs to have such relationships.
The goddess Artemis turned Krokus into the plant known today in English as the crocus, and Smilax into the brambly vine that now carries her name.
Some varieties of Smilax, in particular those found in Jamaica and America are known by the name Sarsaparilla, derived from the Spanish ‘zarza’, meaning ‘shrub’, and ‘parrilla’, meaning ‘little grape vine’.
These days Sarsparilla is most commonly associated with the flavour it gives to root beer but the plant has long been known for its restorative medicinal powers.
It contains a variety of vitamins and minerals, plus diosgenin – a steroid which in turn contains the female hormone progesterone and the male hormone testosterone. For this reason, Smilax has been used for centuries and still today to treat everything from psoriasis and dermatitis to rheumatism, premenstrual tension, sexual impotence and syphilis – the latter known in Linnaeus’s time by the euphemism ‘the curse of Venus‘.
The above illustration comes from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants.