The saparilla is a tree common to the marshy regions of the Strand (i.e., most of it). It is a medium-sized deciduous tree with spiny branches. Mature saparilla can reach 2–8 zhàng in height. Its bark has a papery texture and can be easily removed. It has compound leaves which grow opposite to one another along its branches. Leaves near the trunk have wide sheathing petioles, while new leaves on peripheral branches are covered with a fine down. Its tiny flowers, a yellowish white, are gathered in axillary clusters composed of five petals, ten stamens and a cup with five teeth. The fruit is an oval, flat, thin capsule about a third of a cùn long. Its roots are thick, massive, and pulpy, and yield resin akin to that from the above-ground part.
Saparilla trees growing on the edge of open water develop a stump in the form of a cushion at the base of the trunk that adheres to the rock and improves stability. The bark of these trees is thicker and more leathery than that of trees sitting further from open water. This "water bark" is an adequate antipyretic if no superior alternatives are available. The resin from these trees is more fragrant but less plentiful than that of other saparillas.
The trees start producing resin when they are about 8 to 10 summers old. The sap generally flows at greatest volume through the summer, which is also a period of intense pollination for the saparilla, meaning that peak resin harvesting takes place in a cloud of pollen. A given tree can be tapped two or three times per summer without doing long-term harm to the tree.
The resin is extracted by making an incision on the trunk or branches of the tree. The resin exudes as a sticky, pungent, grayish milky substance that hardens after a few hours exposure to air, losing its stickiness and pungency and acquiring a resinous appearance with color varying from pure opaque white to dark translucent amber. These "tears of the saparilla" are then collected by hand. The impatient resin collector is in for a nasty surprise; if the resin is retrieved before it has fully coagulated, the the pungent resin will seep into the collector's skin, making them irresistible to all manner of flying insects. This is the second-most dangerous hazard of saparilla resin harvesting, the most hazardous being the wide variety of venomous snakes that prefer the saparilla tree above all others for nesting.
Once harvested and purified, the resin is a highly sought-after ingredient for incense, as it burns reliably and slowly, producing a pleasant earthy scent some have characterized as being a blend of sandalwood and musk. The smoke from lesser quality saparilla resin has an additional heavy, bitter, vanilla-like odor. High quality saparilla resin can be quite hard, making it difficult to crush with wooden implements, usually requiring a stone mortar and pestle or even an iron hammer. The ash from burned saparilla can be mixed with oils to make a peculiar black paste that has been used to striking effect as eyeliner.
Also used medicinally since ancient times, the resin is used on the skin for abrasions and wounds, as a treatment for lice, and when mixed with animal fat it has been used as a chest rub. Taken internally it is used as treatment for intestinal parasites. It is reputed that southron barbarians create a tincture of saparilla resin dissolved in distilled barleywine. Presumably they then smear it all over themselves or pour it in their ears or whatever.
Growing conditions vary significantly, affecting both tree development and resin produced. The resin quality depends on the time of harvesting, soil conditions, and many other factors. Slight variations in growing conditions can lead to significant differences in quality, and the harvester who knows how to find the highest grade resin from year to year is far more successful than the one who always harvests from the same stand. Trees in the far western fog-laden zone where the Strand meets Iron Mountain (a region known as the Hazhu-te) grow extremely slowly and produce very high quality resin in large, white clumps known as Silver Tears. Not surprisingly, inhabitants of the Hazhu-te consider this to be superior to all other resins produced in the rest of the Strand, and it is priced accordingly. Most of the very best quality Silver Tears are "purchased" by the Viridian Queen (at significantly below-market rates), and it is rare that anyone from outside the Strand has laid eyes on it.