smilax, sarsaparilla

Sometimes life seems like an impenetrable thicket of brambles. The more you try to push through, the more scratched up you get, and at the end of your efforts you don’t get what you want and you get what you don’t want. What is left for you? Smilax. Vegetate with sarsaparilla.

Smilax. Does that look like a portmanteau for smile and relax? That’s how you say it – there’s nothing tricky about the pronunciation. I suppose you could smile and relax with smilax, but that’s not what it means. It also doesn’t mean ‘smile and use an ax’, though you could do that with smilax. But it would be the smilax that you’re smiting with the ax: it’s a dense briery plant, in fact a whole genus of them. If you want to get to the root of the problem, though, eradicate it – e ‘out, from’ radic ‘root’ ate: pull it out by the roots. And then you may get to the sarasaparilla, if you take roots and make root beer.

Yes, Smilax is a genus with more than 300 species, and they’re all ornery little shrubs, the botanical equivalent of that dreadful project you’re stuck with at work. They include greenbriers, catbriers, prickly-ivys, various plants just called smilaxes, and sarsaparilla. What’s sarsaparilla, aside from a kind of smilax? It’s the plant whose roots give much of the flavour to root beer. Sometimes you’ll see root beer called sarsaparilla.

Kind of a classic-looking name, isn’t it, sarsaparilla? It seems to me to be a cross between a laid-back Southern something-or-other and a truculent simian or towering Japanese lizard. But it’s soft and liquid with a little pop, an ideal name for a carbonated beverage. You might be more energized by the sight of the Spanish version: zarzaparilla. It means ‘little brambly grapevine’: zarza ‘bramble’ and parilla ‘little grapevine’. Does that zarza look familiar? Yes, it’s the same one that shows up in Zarzuela, which is named after a place that’s named after brambles. And where does this zarza word come from? Basque sartzia.

Fair enough. Many are the days one may wish to lie back and bask in the sun with a glass of sarsaparilla and just… smilax. And think of what might have been. Which might have been Smilax.

Smilax, you see, was the name of a nymph: Σμῖλαξ. She was the object of unrequited love by a human youth. He pined for her, but his love was not evergreen; in the end it did not flower, but he did: he was turned into a flower that bears his name. He was Κρόκος; we know him as Crocus. And Smilax, the poor lass, was also turned into a plant, all because she wouldn’t Netflix and chill (or IMAX and climax). But she wasn’t turned into what we call smilax. She was turned into bindweed, a flowering vine. That’s what the Greeks called σμῖλαξ. Somehow more recent botanists managed to switch the name over to a less friendly, albeit tastier, plant.

Poor nymph. Just minding her own business when some random dude she couldn’t care less about develops a thing for her, and next thing she knows, she’s turned into a plant, just because she was pretty. And then she doesn’t even get to keep her name! Think about her next time you think you have troubles. A briery thicket? Pah. It’s nothing. Have a glass of root beer. And as you sip your sarsaparilla, raise it in memory of Smilax.

One response to “smilax, sarsaparilla

  1. This put a smile into my day, and I learned something, too. Thank you.

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