Wild Sarsaparilla is a native erect perennial forb, growing 8 to 27 inches high with stems that are smooth and bare beneath the leaf cluster at the top of the stem.
Leaves: The leaf is one compound leaf, with 2 or 3 segments (3 usually), each segment having 3 or 5 leaflets, all positioned on the top of the erect stem. Leaflet margins are finely toothed. Leaflets are obovate to ellipsoid in shape tapering to the base, slightly wider above the middle, then tapering abruptly to a pointed tip. Where there are 5 leaflets (the usual), the lower two are separated on the leaf stalk from the upper three giving a "3 and 2" arrangement. The underside of the leaf is much paler in color and has whitish hair on the veins.
The inflorescence consists of 2 to 7 (3 usually) rounded umbels, each on a separate stalk branching from the top of a leafless stem that rises from the base of the plant, separate from the leaf stalk and shorter than the leaf stalk. Each umbel will have from 12 to 30 individually stalked flowers.
The flowers are 5-parted with small white to greenish petals, which reflex when in flower. Sepals are green and insignificant. Flowers are bisexual with 5 stamens, with white filaments which are strongly exserted. The ovary is ovoid in shape and has 5 short styles.
Fruit: Flowers mature to a bluish-black rounded fleshy drupe, up to 10 mm in size, each containing an average of 5 small seeds. Seeds have a long period of viability.
Habitat: Wild Sarsaparilla forms colonies of plants vegetatively from a rhizomatous root system, which is aromatic and has a sweet spicy taste, which rabbits love which led to the alternate common name of "Rabbit Root". The rhizomes are long, fairly deep and will produce new plants up to 39 inches from the mother plant. Reproduction by seed is low. It is an understory shade tolerant plant that will grow in moist to dry woodlands, thickets, and prairies. Soils usually should be moderately rich, but drainage can be variable.
Names: The genus Aralia is considered to be a Latinization of the old French-Canadian name aralie. The species nudicalis means 'bare-stemmed' referring to the lack of hair or bristles on the stems. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparison: There is one other species of Aralia in Minnesota that closely resembles - A. hispida, Bristly Sarsaparilla, where the stems are more leafy and are bristly below. The only other species of Aralia found in Minnesota is A. racemosa, American Spikenard, where the inflorescence is also composed of rounded umbels, but they arise from stem nodes. Thus A. nudicaulis is referred to as "false spikenard".
Above: The flower umbels have 12 to 30 individually stalked flowers, each flower with five stamens and five styles.Drawing of Wild Sarsaparilla by from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: Wild Sarsaparilla has a compound leaf atop a naked stem, with the flowering stem rising separately, but less tall, hiding under the leaves. Young leaves as seen here have a bronze tint before turning medium green.
Below: The leaflets of the leaf taper to an abrupt point, have fine teeth and the lower two leaflets of each leaf section are separated freom the upper three leaflets.
Below: The inflorescence consists of 2 to 7 (3 usually as seen here) rounded umbels, each on a separate stalk branching from the top of a leafless stem that rises from the base of the plant, separate from the leaf stalk and shorter than the leaf stalk.
Below: The flowers are in rounded umbels. Seen here, the petals have fallen away and the styles remain atop the enlarging green ovary.
Below: 1st photo - the flowering stem section where branching of the umbels occurs. 2nd photo - leaf underside - pale with whitish hair on the ribs.
Notes: Wild Sarsaparilla does not appear on Eloise Butler's listing of indigenous plants in 1907-1909 but it may have been there. Martha Crone noted it in bloom in 1939 and it appears on her 1951 census report. It appears in most counties of Minnesota with the exception of the drier SW quadrant. It is found in much of North America north of a diagonal line from Washington to Georgia, excepting the far north of Canada in Nunavut.
Lore and Uses: Wild Sarsaparilla obtains its common name from the former use of the aromatic root as a substitute for sarsaparilla in making root beer. There is also a long history of medicinal use, the plant was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1880. Densmore (Ref. #5) in her study of the Minnesota Chippewa reports its use in a decoction of the root for humors of the blood and for women's stoppage of periods. A combination of the root with that of Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus) was used as a charm to ward off evil, but chewing it for personal use or by applying it to fish nets. Several herbalist sites cite other uses.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"