Mabberley (1987) regards this family as comprising 225 species in 10 genera, whilst Brummitt (1992) includes only 2 genera (Smilax L. and Heterosmilax Kunth), the remainder being placed in the Petermanniaceae, Philesiaceae, and Rhipogonaceae. Members of this family have in the past been considered to belong to the Liliaceae. They are found in tropical and warm temperate regions and are mostly climbing shrubs or lianes.
Some species, for example Smilax aspera L. (prickly ivy) and Lapageria rosea Ruiz & Pavón (Chilean bellflower), are occasionally found in cultivation as ornamentals.
The dried roots of certain South and Central American Smilax species are the source of sarsaparilla, which has been used medicinally, but is now used mainly in confectionary and soft drinks. The following species are sources of sarsaparilla (Pereira 1842, Trease & Evans 1966, Wallis 1967):
Members of this family are thorny climbers capable of inflicting mechanical injury.
The plant is a woody climber with a prickly stem. The genus Petermannia F. Muell. is monotypic and is found in New South Wales (Willis 1973). It was formerly included in the Dioscoreaceae.
About 200 species are found in tropical and warm temperate regions (Mabberley 1987).
Sarsaparilla of commerce is derived from the dried roots of Smilax species (see above). According to Pereira (1842), sarsaparilla is given with good effect in papular, vesicular, pustular, and tubercular skin diseases, of a chronic kind, when they occur in enfeebled and emaciated constitutions. Pereira (1842) also describes its use in the treatment of syphilis, but notes also that many practitioners consider sarsaparilla to possess no remedial properties. Trease & Evans (1966) believe that, because of its content of steroidal saponins, sarsaparilla may act by stimulating the absorption of other drugs.
The following species (and probably many others) are thorny and can cause mechanical injury particularly about the ankles of walkers (Hunt 1968/70, Irvine 1961, Mitchell & Rook 1979, Schmidt 2001 — personal observation):
This plant is the source of China root or bamboo briar root which, according to Nadkarni (1976), is used in India like sarsaparilla as an antisyphilitic and for skin diseases including leprosy.
According to Nadkarni (1976), the large tuberous root is used in India for sores and syphilis. Rao (1981) also describes the use of the juice of the leaves by the Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya in India as an application for skin diseases, and notes that the leaves are sometimes dried and powdered then mixed with oil before application to the skin.
According to Irvine (1961) and Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962), the Bemba wash abscesses with water in which the leaf has been warmed. A number of other uses are noted, including the use of the root for the treatment of venereal disease.
According to Nadkarni (1976), the large tuberous root is used in India for sores.
According to Nadkarni (1976), the root is used as in India and Nepal as a substitute for sarsaparilla for the treatment of syphilis and gonorrhoea.
According to Nadkarni (1976), a decoction of the root is given for swellings, abscesses and boils.