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Aromatic flavouring agent originally made from the dried roots of several tropical smilax vines. Native to the southern and western coasts of Mexico to Peru, the plants are large, perennial, climbing or trailing vines with short, thick, underground stems that produce many prickly, angular, aboveground stems supported by tendrils. Once a popular tonic, sarsaparilla now is blended with wintergreen and other flavours and used in root beer and other carbonated beverages, or to flavour and mask the taste of medicines. In North America, the strongly aromatic roots of the wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and false, or bristly, sarsaparilla (A. hispida), of the ginseng family, are sometimes substituted for true sarsaparilla.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on sarsaparilla, visit Britannica.com.