American Spikenard is a native erect perennial herbaceous forb, growing on shrubby stems to as much as 7 feet in height. Stems are much branched on older plants, without thorns, usually without hair and turning to a dark maroon color as the season progresses.
Leaves: The few, but large, compound leaves are divided into 3 main sections (sometimes 4, but rarely), each section is pinnately divided into 9 to 21 leaflets that are ovate, stalked, quite variable in size, sharply toothed and often double toothed. They taper to a pointed tip and have a heart-shaped base. Each leaflet can be 2 to 6 inches long. The veins on the leaflet underside and the leaflet stalk have fine hair.
The inflorescence is a compound spreading panicle, up to 12 inches long, composed of rounded umbels, each umbel on a separate stalk and the entire inflorescence branching up from the top of the stem and sometimes from the leaf axils. Each umbel composed of individually stalked flowers.
The flowers are 5-parted with small white to greenish triangular petals, which reflex when in flower. Sepals are green and insignificant. Flowers are bisexual with 5 stamens, with white filaments which are strongly exserted and rise opposite to the petals. The ovary is ovoid in shape and has 5 styles united for half their length. Individual flowers open at different times.
Fruit: Flowers mature to a dark purple or reddish-brown rounded fleshy drupe, up to 6 mm in size, each containing several light brown small seeds. Seeds require at least 60 days of cold stratification for germination. They can be seeded in the fall for Spring germination. Root cuttings and division can also be used for more plants.
Habitat: American Spikenard can over time form colonies of plants vegetatively from a rhizomatous root system that has a thick taproot, which is aromatic and has a spicy taste. The plant also re-seeds. It is an understory shade tolerant plant that will grow in wet to mesic woodlands, thickets, and prairies. Full sun is tolerated but partial sun is best. Soils usually should be moderately rich, but well drained.
Names: The genus Aralia is considered to be a Latinization of the old French-Canadian name aralie. The species racemosa means having a flowering raceme but in this case the flowers are not directly stalked off the stem of the raceme but instead the umbels are stalked off the raceme. 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 are two other species of Aralia in Minnesota that resemble this - A. nudicaulis, Wild Sarsaparilla, where the inflorescence is also composed of rounded umbels, but fewer and they arise from a leafless stem that rises from the base of the plant. Thus A. nudicaulis is referred to as "false spikenard". There is also A. hispida, Bristly Sarsaparilla, where the stems are more leafy and are bristly below. There is a second subspecies of A. racemosa, ssp. bicrenata, that occurs in the SW United States.
Above: Two inflorescences with fruit beginning to mature. Drawing 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: 1st photo - the inflorescence during flowering with fruit forming. Flowers open at different times. 2nd photo - In this detail of a single flower is seen the reflexed petals, the five stamens and the 5 styles, partially united.
Below: 1st photo - a terminal leaflet on the compound leaf. 2nd photo - the leaf underside is paler in color with some hair on the main veins.
Below: The root system has a thick taproot with branching rhizomes.
Below: maturing fruit.
Below: A partial view of the compound leaf rising from the main stem (upper right just below the inflorescence). Three divisions are visible with the division on the left seen complete. The second division goes to the right and the third division goes downward and out of the photo.
Below: A young plant in the Garden with several of the large leaves.
Notes: American Spikenard does not appear in Eloise Butler's Garden Log, but is found in her index file, indicating it was indigenous to the Garden as her log never mentions planting it. Martha Crone noted it in her 1951 census report. Ken Avery planted it in 1961, Cary George in 1994 and '98, and Susan Wilkins in 2016. It appears in most counties of Minnesota with the exception of the drier SW quadrant. It is found in the eastern half of North America excepting the U.S. states of the Gulf Coast.
Lore and Uses: American Spikenard root is aromatic, pungent and slightly acrid to the taste. It contains volatile oils, resins and tannin. It has been much used for respiratory afflictions. Densmore (Ref. #5) in her study of the Minnesota Chippewa reports its use in a decoction of the root for a cough. Dried root and flowers were pounded together and made into a poultice, without boiling, to heal and draw a boil. When Wild Ginger was added in equal part, the poultice was used for fractures. Fernald (Ref. #6) writes that while the berries have a pleasant aromatic flavor they are considered inedible unless cooked. He also writes of the Menomini Indians cooking the root with wild onion, wild gooseberry and sugar for a 'fine dish'.
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"