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pierre laszlo

 
Salsaparilla, genus Smilax (Smilacaceae)

Salsaparilla, genus Smilax (Smilacaceae)

This particular entry for the ‟plant of the month‟ series is about culture. It purports to show that, far from being inherited, or the result of a good education, culture is a simple urge, that might be compared, however trite, to thirst.
I will trace here, in the manner of a speleologist or an hydrographer, an undercurrent in cultural history. Powerful at times, it has become a mere trickle. So that the ensuing narrative be not construed as just a string of factoids, to be recounted in a social gathering or in magazine format, I shall attempt to reframe it under a wider lense, hinting at the task before a social historian.
My example is an American soft drink. It still exists in the United States, a country justifiably priding itself on its traditions. It is known as root beer.
This is an acquired taste, as people are wont to say. In half-a-century of frequent and prolonged visits to the USA, I drank at the most a dozen cans of root beer, less than once a year on the average. To be candid, however, my personal experience of Coca-Cola is equally sparse. To me, both these drinks, that are linked historically to so-called soda fountains, taste quaint and archaic. Clearly, I stand as an anomaly.
Indeed, my wife, a Californian, relishes root beer floats, i.e., the combination of vanilla ice cream with the soft drink. She fondly remembers how delightful it was to savor ice cream crystals, when the liquid was cold enough.
The name root beer is an accurate description, a carbonated and sweetened beverage, a soft drink made from the root of a plant.
Correction: a rhizome, not a root, unless one uses the word ‟root‟ generically to refer indiscriminately to all and sundry underground parts of a plant.
To return to my chosen topic, culture, we have to set aside another ingrained prejudice. Knowledge is not imbibed like a can of Coke going down one’s throat. Knowledge is an attitude, a quest espoused by human animals, both curious about their environment, not taking it for granted, who go about seeking answers on their own. So much for another stereotype, that of culture as a social construct.
But let us take a cursory look at the plant, to help understand what culture consists of. The root referred to by root beer, the rhizome rather, is that of a vine, endemic to the Caribbean, the Jamaican sarsaparilla.
Here is a description of the root, translated from a French textbook of pharmacy published in 1794:
‟Usually, this root has the thickness of a standard ordinary writing quill, lengthy and very flexible. The outer bark is of an ashen brown. The inside is white, mushy and somewhat floury. It does not have a smell. Of a weak and slightly bitter taste, it leaves the mouth with a somewhat viscous feel.‟
Sarsaparillas originate in the New World. Not exclusively, as we shall see. Which calls for, yes, cultural recognition of our collective indebtedness to Amerindians. So much in our culture is their legacy. This includes vegetables, such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and many others; meats, such as turkey; drugs, such as quinine and curare; and materials, starting with rubber and jacaranda, not to mention Brazil wood, which also served for a red dye. Indeed, both root beer and Coca-Cola share such an Amerindian origin.
When they irrupted into the New World, European invaders, conquistadors and evangelizing priests, geographers and traders, gold-seekers and naturalists, were keenly interested in its riches. When Amerindians taught them the benefits from that rhizome, they surely taught them also their name for the plant, in Nahuatl perhaps if such instruction was provided in Mexico, in Tupi-Guarani perhaps if it was bestowed in Brazil.
However, the explorers and future settlers, set on utilitarian goals, bringing home as much loot as their vessels could carry, promptly half-forgot that name, contenting themselves with a rough and very approximative equivalent in Spanish and Portuguese, zalzaparilla, sarsaparilla, salsaparilla and half-a-dozen other variants.
The Frenchman André Thevet, who published a book on the wonders of Brazil and a Cosmographie universelle (1575), rendered it into French as salzeparille. This French name is attested a little earlier under the pen of the great surgeon Ambroise Paré, about 1560.
Botanists gradually recognized that many plants elsewhere resembled it, hundreds of species indeed, making up an entire genus.  Their common names include catbriers, greenbriers and prickly-ivys.
In California, where I spend part of the year, Smilax californica, the California greenbriar, inhabits streambanks in forests, mostly in the northernmost reaches of the state. There is also Smilax jamesii, found in alder thickets along streams and lakes, and on bracken slopes in the Klamath mountains , usually at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 ft.
The sarsaparilla is a rather gorgeous plant. Known for its rhizome, rich in chemicals known as saponins, it has, at least to my taste, most handsome leaves.
And where does that name for the genus, Smilax, come from? It has nothing to do with a smile or smiling. To the contrary, it perpetuates a sad, a tragic episode in Greek mythology (you have been forewarned, this is an entry infused with our cultural heritage).
Krokus was a man. He fell in love with a nymph, Smilax, whom he met in the woods. The gods were not amused, since the nymph could not get over her indecision, should she let herself be courted by Krokus? Should she accept his love? Should she let him make love to her? Such tergiversation on her part irked the gods. For a mere mortal to consort with a deity, even if she was not a fully-fledged goddess, but only a half-deity, was a provocation. They struck the couple with their wrath. They turned him into a flower, that still bears his name, the crocus; and they made her into a brambly vine, the sarsaparilla. Why such a choice? To put as much distance between the two would-be lovers and prevent them from ever meeting again.
Should we then sprinkle a little saffron, from crocus stamens, into root beer, in memory of these two?
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus knew his mythology. He gave Smilax plants their name in 1753. He probably had a sample of sarsaparilla, from Santo Domingo, in his herbarium. 1753 was the year when his country, Sweden, adopted the Gregorian calendar, on March 1st. Two months later, Linnaeus published his Species plantarum, a landmark in science history.
It was an important year in the history of medicine, the British naval surgeon James Lind published his Treatise on scurvy, based on careful observation and proposing effective prophylaxis, based on drinking lemon juice and eating fresh vegetables— which James Cook would carry out during his voyages: better health through plants. We shall return to the health benefits from the Smilax rhizome.  
This account, far from being linear, is rather convoluted. It is sinuous, which befits the description of a vine.
Also, it contents itself in being a mere outline of a complex story. The chief merit of exploring the past is to both better understand the present, to also call it into question — to some extent, dissolve it. History makes us realize how relative the present is, how things we take for granted and believe in, such as medications, most probably are ephemereal and soon to be swept into oblivion. 
It was natural for Linnaeus to use the name Smilax, in recollection of the, although unfulfilled, carnal desire of the mortal for the nymph. Sarsaparilla from the West Indies and Latin America had been widely used by Europeans to treat syphilis.
Why was it adopted as therapy for this venereal disease ? This came about as a result of publication in 1563, in Venice, of a book entitled De Morbo Gallico (‟on the French disease‟) by A. Massa. This, as it turns out, erroneous reputation spread like wildfire. Obviously, physicians were desperate for remedies against this scourge.
Thus, Spaniards brought this ‟root‟ back to Europe, for that very reason. I can only conclude that they were misled in so doing, because either they misunderstood what the Indians were telling them, consistent with their carelessness in not recording the true Indian name of this plant; or, and this is an entertaining hypothesis, because the Indians played a practical joke on their conquerors : to them, Chinantec Indians, in the Oaxaca region; Bolivians in the Huacareta region; Brazilian Indians of the Amazon among others, sarsaparilla was a purgative and a remedy for stomach pains. It also was and continues to be an ingredient of the tifey drink in Haiti, reputedly an aphrodisiac.
The European chapter is more obscure and more complex. Sarsaparilla was only the junior partner in a dual therapy, the main agent of which was gaiac. Gaiac, another medicinal plant borrowed from Latin American Indians, was acclaimed by Europeans as a miracle cure of syphilis during the first half of the sixteenth century. The reasoning was attributive: syphilis was (mistakenly) reputed coming from the New World, hence its cure had to likewise be imported from Southern America. Because of its association with gaiac, sarsaparilla was believed to be efficient. However, its main observed effect was to make patients afflicted with the ‟French disease‟ to sweat profusely.
To keep it simple, I leave out of this account the sarsaparilla roots imported from China and the Far East.
About the turn of the seventeenth century — it takes as a rule a generation or two for people to convince themselves that a drug, even a whole category of drugs lack effectiveness — mercury derivatives superseded the association of gaiac and sarsaparilla.
Subsequently and for a couple of centuries, sarsaparilla root continued to be imported in large amounts in Europe and North America. Commercial routes and fluxes endure, even though the end uses of the products may evolve and change radically. Pharmacists used sarsaparilla root as an ingredient in their preparations, primarily as a purgative, sweat promoter and blood purifier — whatever that last bit means. It was endowed with sundry beneficial properties.
For instance, the writer Stendhal, then living in Italy, in 1816 was prescribed sarsaparilla by his local physician. Stendhal was a tense person who suffered from hypertension, that finally killed him in 1842.
During the period 1650-1850, roughly speaking, the notion and use of sarsaparilla as a drug of choice for syphilis waned. It gradually vanished from public consciousness. But, together with the linnean name Smilax for the plant, there lingered on the trace of a link to sexuality. Sarsaparilla enjoyed something of a reputation for being an aphrodisiac as well. Which brings up the devising of root beer, at least that of its immediate forerunners.
This occurred in the Northeastern United States, in the aftermath of the Civil War. In several locations, enterprising pharmacists and physicians, with a nose for a business opportunity and a talent for advertising, marketed sarsaparilla extracts as oral medications, such as syrups. I see it as somewhat comparable to today’s Red Bull, caffein-rich beverages aimed at testosterone-infused 18-35 year-olds, with advertising based on Formula 1 car racing. The manufacturers of patent medicines such as Ayer’s sarsaparilla (Lowell, Massachusetts, 1858) or Hood’s sarsaparilla (also made in Lowell, 1876) quickly recognized that they were better off claiming their products as a cure-all for the whole family, children included. This became highly successful and part of the medicine cabinet in many a home. They paved the way for the subsequent invention of a soft drink.
Launched by Roy Allen, root beer began its commercial life in 1919. With related origins and likewise a complex formula, to discourage would-be imitators, Coca-Cola had been devised by John Pemberton in 1886. The differing fortunes of these two beverages, the second of which became the foundation for a corporate empire, deserve comparative analysis, a case study most probably part of the curriculum in many a business school. I wont attempt it here.

I want to return in closing to my main theme, culture. The story of the vogue of extracts from sarsaparilla root in the West mingles with history, discovery of the New World, medical history and medicinal plants, American nineteenth and early twentieth century century social history, with the roles of self-medication, peddlers of snake oils, advertising, the spread of drugstores, importance of mail-order catalogs, soda fountains and the opening up of a mass market following World War I. All these are part of our culture. They are the roots of our present.
Why did I choose to research and write up this account, all-in-all about a full week of hard work? In short, because I yearn for culture and was trained as a teacher.
Allow me to elaborate on the first of these answers. The two words, culture and cultivation are cognates. A shortcut, such as the cliché that seeking culture is to cultivate one’s mind, won’t wash. It is too superficial.
To be more incisive, there is indeed a deep analogy between the manual work of the agriculturalist and the mental work of the scholar — I deliberately avoid the term ‟intellectual‟ because of its disrepute, synonymous that it has become with highbrow and elitist.    The cultivation-culture analogy became a way of life for Christian monks in medieval times. They gave themselves rules of being, such as the Rule of Saint Benedict. Such rules set the pattern of their existence as a balance between work of the hands and work of the head, interspersed with collective attendance of God-praising services and solitary prayer.
Consider the numerous similes between the two activities, the manual and the mental. Agrarian work ruled by the seasons, traditional and repetitive vs. work by the copyists in the scriptorium, ruled by the past, sometimes the remote past of Antiquity, likewise traditional and repetitive. Agriculture, soil-based and landscape-inscribed vs. culture, language-based, parchment- and paper-inscribed. Crops, stored in barns and silos vs. culture, stored in libraries and universities. Domesticated plants and their seeds, i.e., altered nature vs. altered natural languages, made literary and scholarly. Rotation of crops, i.e., rationality in farming vs. the writing of history, i.e., turning the past into a material for intelligibility.
Such a challenge — making sense of the past — I strove to meet in this piece.