Wild Sarsaparilla. Aralia nudicaulis L.
OTHER COMMON NAMES—False sarsaparilla, Virginia sarsaparilla, American sarsaparilla, small spikenard, rabbit's root, shotbush, wild licorice.
HABITAT AND RANGE—Wild Sarsaparilla grows in rich, moist woods from Newfoundland west to Manitoba and south to North Carolina and Missouri.
DESCRIPTION OF PLANT—This native herbaceous perennial, belonging to the ginseng family (Araliaceae), produces a single, long-stalked leaf and flowering stalk from a very short stem, both surrounded or sheathed at the base by thin, dry scales. The leafstalk is about 12 inches long divided at the top into three parts, each division bearing five oval, toothed leaflets from 2 to, 5 inches long, the veins on the lower surface sometimes hairy.
The naked flowering stalk bears three spreading clusters of small, greenish flowers, each cluster consisting of from 12 to 30 flowers produced from May to June, followed later in the season by purplish black roundish berries, about the size of the common elderberries.
DESCRIPTION OF ROOTSTOCK—Wild Sarsaparilla rootstock has a very fragrant, aromatic odor. Rabbits are said to be very fond of it, whence one of the common names, "rabbit's root," is derived. The rootstock is rather long, horizontally creeping, somewhat twisted, and yellowish brown on the out side. The taste is warm and aromatic. The dried rootstock is brownish, gray and wrinkled lengthwise on the outside, about one-fourth of an inch in thickness, the inside, whitish with a spongy pith. The taste is sweetish and somewhat aromatic.
COLLECTION, PRICES AND USES—The root of Wild Sarsaparilla is collected in autumn, and brings from 5 to 8 cents a pound.
This has long been a popular remedy, both among the Indians and domestic practice, and was official in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1880. Its use is that of an alterative, stimulant and diaphoretic and in this it resembles the official sarsaparilla obtained from tropical America.
SIMILAR SPECIES—The American spikehead (Aralia racemosa L.), known also as spignet, spiceberry, Indian-root, petty-morrel, life-of-man and old-man's-root, is employed like Aralia nudicaulis. It is distinguished from this by its taller, herbaceous habit, its much-branched stem from 3 to 6 feet high and very large leaves consisting of thin, oval, heart shaped, double saw-toothed leaflets. The small, greenish flowers are arranged in numerous clusters, instead of only three as in nudicaulis and also appear somewhat later, namely, from July to August. The berries are roundish, reddish brown, or dark purple.
The rootstock is shorter than that of nudicaulis and much thicker, with prominent stem scars, and furnished with, numerous, very long, rather thin roots. The odor and taste are stronger than in nudicaulis. It is also collected in autumn, and brings from 4 to 8 cents a pound.
The American spikenard occurs in similar situations as nudicaulis, but its range extends somewhat farther South, Georgia being given as the Southern limit.
The California spikenard (Aralia californica Wats.) may be used for the same purpose as the other species. The plant is larger than Aralia racemosa, but otherwise is very much like it. The root is also larger than that of A. racemosa.