Aralia nudicaulis L.

Wild Sarsaparilla


CC = 10
CW = 3
MOC = 2
SRank = S2

© SRTurner

Family - Araliaceae

Habit - Perennial forb with long-creeping rhizomes.

Stem - Aerial stems absent.

Leaves - Basal, usually solitary from the tip of the rhizome, with petioles 15-35 cm long. Blades 15-40 cm long, the 3 main divisions each pinnately divided into 3-5 leaflets, the leaflets 3-15 cm long, narrowly elliptic to broadly ovate, the margins sharply toothed, the upper surface green, the undersurface slightly lighter green, minutely hairy along the larger veins.

Aralia_nudicaulis_leaf1.jpg Leaf.

© SRTurner

Aralia_nudicaulis_leaf1a.jpg Leaf adaxial.

© SRTurner

Inflorescences - Solitary from the rhizome, a compound umbel with usually 3umbels, the main stalk 8-25 cm long, minutely hairy toward the tip.

Aralia_nudicaulis_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Aralia_nudicaulis_inflorescence2.jpg Inflorescence arising from underground rhizome.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Mostly perfect, epigynous, actinomorphic. Sepals 5 low, broadly triangular teeth. Petals 5, often promptly deciduous following opening of the flower, oblong-elliptic, 1-2 mm long, white or green. Pistil 1 per flower, composed of 2-5 fused carpels, the ovary inferior with a nectar disc at the tip, the styles usually 5, sometimes fused together toward the base, persistent in fruit.

Aralia_nudicaulis_flowers.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Aralia_nudicaulis_flowers2.jpg Flowers.

© SRTurner

Fruits - Berrylike drupes 6-10 mm long, maturing to purplish black, usually with 5 stones.

Aralia_nudicaulis_fruits.jpg Developing fruits.

© SRTurner

Flowering - May - June.

Habitat - Ledges of moist, shaded bluffs, on both calcareous substrates and sandstone.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - Panax quinquefolius.

Other info. - This interesting plant is very uncommon in Missouri. Its main range is in northern and eastern regions of the continental U.S. (and also Canada), with smaller disjunct populations in northern Washington State and in the Rocky Mountains, where the images above were acquired. Though not showy, the plant is easily identified by its characteristic leaves and inflorescences, which are unique among our flora.

This plant has a long history of human use, both as medicine and as a beverage. The fruits are edible, with a sweet-spicy flavor, and have been made into wine. The spicy rootstocks have been used as a flavoring component of root beer and the older, related beverage called sarsaparilla, although "true" sarsaparilla refers to, or is made from, plants in the Smilax genus. Rootstocks were also used by the Iroquois and other northeastern tribes as a remedy for various blood, kidney, stomach, and other ailments.

Most references translate the species name nudicaulis as "naked stem" or "leafless stem." This seems oddly backward, as the true growth habit is that of a stemless leaf.

Photographs taken in Rocky Mountain National Park, Larimer County, CO, 6-23-2018, 7-9-2019, and 6/17/2020 (SRTurner).