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Aralia nudicaulis

Aralia nudicaulis L.

 

Wild Sarsaparilla

KingdomPlantaePlants, but not fungi, lichens, or algae (from Stearn’s Botanical Latin)
SubkingdomTracheobiontaVascular plants—plants with a “circulatory system” for delivering water and nutrients
DivisionMagnoliophytaFlowering plants, also known as angiosperms
ClassMagnoliopsidaDicotyledons—plants with two initial seed leaves
SubclassAsteridaeA large class that encompasses asters
OrderApialesIncludes carrots, celery, parsley, and ivy
FamilyAraliaceaeIvy family
GenusAraliaLatinized version of French Canadian or American Indian name aralie
SpeciesnudicaulisFrom Latin nudus, “bare, naked,” and Greek kaulos, “stem”: bare-stemmed

About plant names...

Wild sarsaparilla’s scientific name, Aralia nudicaulis, means simply “bare stem.” It is a native of northern North America.

Identification: Plants are 12-24" (30-60 cm) high. The leaves are all lined up in a flat plane, on bare hairless stems. Tiny white or pale green flowers form spherical clusters about 1½" (3.8 cm) around, underneath the leaves. They resemble wild leek flowers, but lack the leeks’ odor of onions. The flower clusters become similarly shaped berry clusters, with dark blue berries.

Wild sarsaparilla is sometimes confused with “real” sarsaparilla, even though the plants bear no resemblance to each other and do not overlap in range. Here are some other possible sources of confusion:

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) Short plants often found in North American forests, with bare stems topped with leaves in a flat plane, and flowers nestled underneath the leaves.
Bristly sarsaparilla (Aralia hispida) A close relative, but larger and with stems that are covered with bristly hairs; stems of A. nudicaulis are smooth.
Sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis and other species) A vine native to Jamaica, reaching up to 50' (15 m) in length, with long underground roots that have been used in some soft drinks and for various ailments.
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) An unrelated but highly toxic Skull & Crossbones plant that is vaguely similar in appearance to wild sarsaparilla and has leaves in groups of three.
Australian sarsaparilla tree (Alphitonia petriei) A fast-growing evergreen tree with bark and leaves that smell like liniment when rubbed.

Edibility: “Sarsaparilla” is Spanish for “little grape vine”—a name well-suited to real sarsaparilla, but not to wild sarsaparilla. I couldn’t verify this, but it looks as if roots of wild sarsaparilla were sometimes used as a flavoring agent in place of the real variety, leading to the name confusion. I couldn’t find good information on wild sarsaparilla’s toxicity.

Online References:

Aralia nudicaulis from all-creatures.org

Aralia nudicaulis on Earl J.S. Rook's Flora, Fauna, Earth, and Sky ... The Natural History of the Northwoods

Aralia nudicaulis on the Connecticut Botanical Society's Connecticut wildflowers site

Aralia nudicaulis at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Aralia nudicaulis on Plants for a Future, a resource and information centre for edible and otherwise useful plants

Aralia nudicaulis on BorealForest.org

Aralia nudicaulis on CalPhotos

Aralia nudicaulis at the University of Wisconsin's Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium

Aralia nudicaulis on the USDA Forest Service's Fire Effects Information Database

References:

Clemants, Steven; Gracie, Carol, Wildflowers in the Field and Forest, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 388

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/2/2013 · Beaver Brook Assn Conservation Lands, Rte. 130, Hollis, NH
≈ 6 × 5" (14 × 13 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

9/19/2009 · Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME
≈ 24 × 16" (62 × 41 cm) ID is uncertain

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/9/2010 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA
≈ 3½ × 3½" (8.6 × 9.3 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

The berries are sarsaparilla. Foliage is bunchberry. · 7/15/2012 · Fort Point State Park, Stockton Springs, ME
≈ 9 × 6" (22 × 14 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/18/2016 · Worcester Road, Beaver Brook Conservation Area, Hollis, NH
≈ 14 × 21" (34 × 52 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

9/18/2009 · Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME
≈ 32 × 21" (82 × 53 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 30 May 2016.

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Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/21/2013 · Beaver Brook Assn Conservation Lands, Rte. 130, Hollis, NH
≈ 8 × 8" (21 × 19 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/18/2013 · Oak Hill, Littleton Conservation Land, Littleton, MA
≈ 5 × 4" (13 × 10 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

Berries will become black when ripe. (The leaves are false Solomon’s seal.) · 6/4/2013 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA
≈ 7 × 5" (17 × 13 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/17/2010 · Wildlife Pond Loop Trail, Beaver Brook Association Conservation Lands, Hollis, NH
≈ 14 × 21" (34 × 52 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/9/2010 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA
≈ 4 × 4½" (10 × 11 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/2/2010 · Tom and Susan’s, Pepperell, MA
≈ 15 × 10" (39 × 26 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

The berries are sarsaparilla. Foliage is bunchberry. · 7/15/2012 · Fort Point State Park, Stockton Springs, ME
≈ 15 × 10" (39 × 26 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

7/15/2012 · Fort Point State Park, Stockton Springs, ME
≈ 12 × 13" (29 × 34 cm)

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

5/18/2016 · Worcester Road, Beaver Brook Conservation Area, Hollis, NH

Aralia nudicaulis (Wild Sarsaparilla)

7/15/2012 · Fort Point State Park, Stockton Springs, ME
≈ 12 × 12" (29 × 30 cm)

Range:

About this map...