Friday, May 22, 2009

Wild Sarsparilla

Wild sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is an abundant perennial wildflower in our oak-pine woods. It forms a canopy one-two feet tall, shading its own flowers and other low growing herbaceous plants such as Canada mayflower and starflower.

A member of the ginseng family, wild sarsparilla has a long, smooth leaf stalk that splits into three parts at the top. Each part bears 3-7 (usually 5) leaflets.

The leaves are finely toothed. This is one way to be sure it is not poison ivy since the latter is not finely toothed. Also poison ivy has a woody stem, whereas the sarsparilla is entirely herbaceous above ground.
The tiny white flowers form on 3 or 4 round clusters or umbels that are borne on a separate smooth flower stalk.

Wild sarsparilla reproduces by seed and by branching roots (or rhizomes). The long creeping, fleshy rootstock is what was and perhaps still is used by some to flavor drinks and for medicinal purposes. Hence it is known as "the orginal backwoods root beer."

This is not to be confused, however, with the unrelated true Sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.), a vine that grows in Central America and that is also used for medicinal purposes. And the flavorings used in commercial root beer is also something different. Originally it was sassafras root until that was considered to be carcinogenic in the 1970s. Today various roots are used along with artificial ingredients or maybe just artificial stuff to make soft drinks.

Our common wild sarsparilla is favored by deer in spring; they have chewed some of the leaves at the edge of our driveway along with some tulips and hosta. By mid-summer dark blue fruits will form. In fall the leaves turn a golden yellow. On the hot days this week I noticed many pollinating flies on the umbels. The weather has changed dramatically. After two hot 90-degree days, today is cold, overcast, and breezy. Not a day for pollinators, but a good day for weekend chores.


  1. Mystery solved!

    I think you have inadvertently solved a wildflower mystery for us, Ellen. We saw plants similar to these on our recent vacation in Shenandoah National Park. The small round flowers were very striking, though most weren't open yet. But we really couldn't place them. Your photos look almost identical to what we saw. Now we know.

    We do have a relative of this, spikenard, growing in our small front yard, a free gift from the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia to its members one year. But it gets huge. We always hope that the many purple berries will be useful to birds in the fall but so far we've never seen any takers.


  2. Hi Ken,

    Nice to know this was helpful in your i.d. Blogging has led me to look for more closely at the plants and their life cycles that grow in our yard and surrounding environs.