Wild Sarsaparilla

Aralia nudicaulis

Species distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Greenish-white, globe-shaped flower clusters
  • Dark purple berry clusters
  • Long, woody rhizomes
  • Leaf divided into 3 leaflets, which are then divided into 3–5 leaflets.

Family Characteristics: 

  • Perennial herbs or shrubs
  • Alternate, deeply divided or lobed leaves with leaf stalks
  • Spherical clusters of small, greenish-white, 5-petaled flowers
  • Red or purple berry clusters

Growth habitat: 

Perennial understory plant, less than 1 m tall.  Forms colonies from spreading rootstocks.

Leaves and stems: 

Short, erect stems with 1 leaf per stem.  Leaves are divided into 3 main groups that attach by stalks at a central point and have 3–5 leaflets in each group.  Leaves are oval-shaped, pointed at the tip, 3–12 cm long, and have finely toothed margins.  When the plant first emerges in early spring, the leaves often have a shiny, reddish tint and may be mistaken at a glance for poison ivy. 

 

Flowers: 

Small, greenish-white flowers in spherical clusters (usually 3) on a leafless stalk.  Flowers have 5 petals and are somewhat inconspicuous because the flower stalks are shorter than leaf stalks.

Roots: 

Long, horizontal creeping roots, or rhizomes, are several meters in length, and form colonies with many plants connected.  Roots are light yellowish-brown and less than 1 cm in diameter.  The mildly sweet, spicy taste of the root bark has lead to its use as a substitute for true sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis) to make tea and root beer.

Seeds: 

Berries are dark purple to blue-black when mature and green when young.  Berries are edible but highly astringent and may cause sickness.  Each fruit has an average of 5 seeds.

Habitat preferences: 

Moist, shaded forests, thickets, openings, and riparian areas in foothills and mid-elevations.  Rich soils. 

Interesting facts: 

Medicinally similar to ginseng but not as potent.  Used to induce sweat, cleanse the blood, and invigorate.  Some native groups carried bundles of the roots to chew on for energy during long expeditions.  Moose (Alces alces) eat the foliage in the spring.  White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), black bear (Ursus americanus), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), and thrushes (Turdidae spp.) eat the fruits.

Biological Classification: