Wildflowers of the Adirondacks:
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is a wildflower that produces globe-shaped clusters of greenish-white flowers in spring in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The finely toothed compound leaves are bronze in spring, green in summer, and yellow or red in the fall.
- Wild Sarsaparilla is a member of the Araliaceae (Ginseng) Family, which also contains two other somewhat similar plants found in the Adirondack Mountains: Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) and American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).
- Wild Sarsaparilla is part of the Aralia (Spikenard) genus. This genus also includes Spikenard (Aralia racemosa L.) and Bristly Sarsaparilla (Aralia hispida), both of which are found in the Adirondack Park. The genus name (Aralia) is a Latinization of an old French-Canadian name, which may have been derived from the Iroquois language.
- The species name (nudicaulis) comes from the Latin nudus (meaning naked) and cauli (stalk). This is a reference to the fact that the flower stalk is leafless.
The common name (Wild Sarsaparilla) refers to the former use of the plant's root as a substitute for sarsaparilla in making root beer. Alternate common names include Rabbit Root (a reference to reports that the plant is tasty to rabbits), False Spikenard, Small Spikenard, Sweet-root, Virginia-sarsaparilla, American-Sarsaparilla, and Wild Licorice.
Identification of Wild Sarsaparilla
Wild Sarsaparilla reaches a height of 8 to 20 inches. The leaf stem and flowering stem are hairless and arise from an aromatic root system consisting of fibrous secondary roots and a long horizontal rhizomeRhizome: The modified subterranean stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes are also called creeping rootstalks and rootstocks. that run about two inches below the soil.
This plant produces a single leaf with a long, smooth stalk, growing above the flowers like an umbrella.
- The leaf is basalBasal: Leaves are confined to the base of the stem. , meaning that it arises from the base of the plant.
- The leaf is compoundCompound Leaf: A leaf that is divided to the midrib, with distinct, expanded portions called leaflets., meaning that it is divided into several leaflets. In the case of Wild Sarsaparilla, the leaf is twice divided. It is divided into three parts and further divided into five leaflets, each of which is two to five inches long. The leaf is pinnately compoundPinnately Compound Leaf: A type of compound leaf. In pinnately compound leaves, a row of leaflets forms on either side of an extension of the petiole called the rachis., which means that the leaflets are borne in rows on either side of a central axis.
- The leaflets are narrowly oval, with a pointed tip. The margins (edges) are finely toothed.
- Wild Sarsaparilla leaves are a deep bronze when they emerge in the spring, changing to medium green during the summer. As the weather gets colder in the fall, the leaves change to yellow or deep red.
In spring, the plant produces three flower clusters on a leafless stalk arising directly from the base of the plant.
- The flower cluster (sometimes referred to as an inflorescence in guidebooks) is an umbelUmbel: A flower arrangement in which the flowers appear at the end of a number of short flower stalks (called pedicels), spreading from a common point like umbrella ribs, usually resulting in a flat- or round-topped inflorescence. , meaning that is consists of a number of short flower stalks (called pedicelsPedicel: A small stalk bearing an individual flower in an inflorescence (flower cluster). ), spreading from a common point like umbrella ribs.
- Wild Sarsaparilla's umbels are spherical. Most guidebooks indicate that the umbels are 1½–2" across, but in our region the flower clusters are usually somewhat smaller.
- Each flower cluster consists of about twenty to forty flowers. Each flower is about ⅛ inch wide. Each flower has five petals that curve back and downward, five white-tipped stamensStamen: The male part of the flower, made up of the filament and anther. that protrude from the center, and a pistilPistil: The female organs of a flower, consisting of the ovary, stigma, and style. with five stylesStyle: The narrow, elongated part of the pistil between the ovary and the stigma. The style is part of the pistil (the female organs of a flower), which also consists of an ovary and a stigma. The style is the stalk that connects the stigma to the ovary. . The pedicelsPedicel: A small stalk bearing an individual flower in an inflorescence (flower cluster). – the small stalks bearing an individual flower in a flower cluster – are pale green.
- The stalk bearing the flowers is considerably shorter than the leaf stalk, so the flower clusters tend to be hidden beneath the leaf.
Wild Sarsaparilla generally blooms in late spring in the Adirondack Mountains.
- A tally of flowering dates for the upland Adirondack areas compiled by Michael Kudish, based on data collected from the early seventies to the early nineties, lists the plant as in flower from 25 May through 12 June, with a median flowering date of 3 June.
- More recent data suggest a similar pattern. In the northern part of the Adirondack Park, Wild Sarsaparilla is generally in bud in mid- to late May and in flower in early to mid-June.
- In the southern part of the Adirondacks and areas just south of the Adirondack Park Blue Line, blooms may appear a few weeks earlier, in early May.
Wild Sarsaparilla's flowers develop into fruit which takes the form of a ¼-inch round green berry. The berries appear in a cluster and change from green to reddish green to dark purple or blue-black. Each berry contains an average of five small seeds The berries are said to taste a little spicy and sweet.
Keys for distinguishing Wild Sarsaparilla from the two other plants in the Aralia genus that grow in the Adirondacks include its size and the shape of its flower cluster (inflorescence).
- The flower clusters of Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) are racemesRaceme: A flower cluster with the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks at equal distances along a central stem. , with the flowers attached by short stalks along a main axis, in contrast to the rounded flower clusters of Wild Sarsaparilla. In addition, Spikenard's flowers are densely covered in very short white hairs, which give them a frosty look; and its berries are purplish red. Also, Spikenard is a much larger plant, growing three to four feet high.
- Bristly Sarsaparilla (Aralia hispida) has stout stems with long sharp bristles in the lower parts of the plant, in contrast to Wild Sarsaparilla's smooth stems.
Wild Sarsaparilla's flowers are similar to those of two plants in the Ginseng (Panax) genus that occur in the Adirondacks.
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) also produces tiny greenish white flowers arranged in round clusters (umbels). However, its compound leaves are palmatePalmately Compound Leaf: A type of compound leaf. In palmately compound leaves, the leaflets radiate from a single point., with the leaflets radiating from a single point, in contrast to Wild Sarsaparilla's compound leaves, which are pinnatePinnately Compound Leaf: A type of compound leaf. In pinnately compound leaves, a row of leaflets forms on either side of an extension of the petiole called the rachis. (with the leaflets attached along on extension of the petiole called a rachis). Moreover, its berries are bright red, in contrast to the purplish black berries of the Wild Sarsaparilla.
- Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) also produces a cluster of tiny white flowers, but it is a much smaller plant than Wild Sarsaparilla; and its flower clusters (which are snowy white, lacking the greenish tinge of Wild Sarsaparilla flowers) appear above or at the same height as the leaves, rather than huddled below the leaves, as with Wild Sarsaparilla.
Uses of Wild Sarsaparilla
Wild Sarsaparilla derives its common name from the fact that it was used in the past a substitute for sarsaparilla and for making root beer. The plant was reportedly used as food by the Indians during wars or when they were hunting since it is very sustaining. It was also used by native Americans to make teas. The Algonquin, Montagnais, and Iroquois reportedly used the berries to make wine. The Kwakiutl roasted the roots for food.
This plant had a much wider use among native Americans as a medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. A number of groups, including the Mohegans, Abnaki, Cherokee, and Delaware, used the plant as a tonic. Wild Sarsaparilla was also used by many groups as a poultice for wounds, burns, or sores. The root was also used as a cough medicine.
Wildlife Value of Wild Sarsaparilla
Wild Sarsaparilla is used as a food source for a variety of birds, mammals, and insects, although the overall wildlife value of these plants is low.
- Long-tongued and short-tongued bees, as well as some species of flies and beetles, visit the flowers. At least one species of aphid feeds on the roots and stem bases.
- The berries of Aralia species are consumed by the Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, Ruffed Grouse, and White-throated Sparrow, although this represents only a small percentage of their diets.
A few mammals feed on Wild Sarsaparilla.
- Wild Sarsaparilla is browsed by White-tailed Deer and Moose.
- Eastern Chipmunks, Striped Skunks, and Red Foxes consume the berries.
- American Black Bears are also consumers of Wild Sarsaparilla berries, although sources conflict on their relative importance in the bears' diet. Studies analyzing bear scat in Ontario, Quebec, northern Wisconsin, and northeastern Minnesota found that berries from Wild Sarsaparilla were an important food item of Black Bears in July and August. Most analyses found that Black Bear diets vary significantly with the seasonal availability of both Wild Sarsaparilla berries and alternate food sources.
Distribution of Wild Sarsaparilla
The range of Wild Sarsaparilla includes Alberta east to Newfoundland, south to Georgia, and northwest to Nebraska and North Dakota. There are also populations of this plant in the northwestern US and British Columbia.
Wild Sarsaparilla is found in many New York counties. Its presence has been documented in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line except Clinton, Saratoga, and Fulton.
Habitat of Wild Sarsaparilla
Wild Sarsaparilla is relatively flexible in terms of site requirements. It is adapted to coarse, fine, and medium textured soil. It can grow in soils that are moderate to rich in nutrients and on sites that are poorly drained to well-drained. It is shade-tolerant. Its preference appears to be for lightly shaded open woods, but it can also be found in full shade.
As a result, Wild Sarsaparilla can be found in a fairly wide range of habitats, including boreal coniferous and mixed woods forests, as well as thickets and bog edges. It can be found growing under both conifers and deciduous trees.
In the Adirondack Mountains, Wild Sarsaparilla is found in a variety of ecological communities, including:
- Acidic Tallus Slope Woodland
- Appalachian Oak-Hickory Forest
- Appalachian Oak-Pine Forest
- Balsam Flats
- Beech-Maple Mesic Forest
- Chestnut Oak Forest
- Hemlock-Hardwood Swamp
- Hemlock-Northern Hardwood Forest
- Mountain Spruce-Fir Forest
- Northern White Cedar Swamp
- Pine-Northern Hardwood Forest
- Pitch Pine Heath Barrens
- Spruce-Northern Hardwood Forest
The Beech-Maple Mesic Forest, for instance, is a closed-canopy Northern Hardwood Forest dominated by Sugar Maple and American Beech, usually located on moist, well-drained soils. This ecological community is characterized by a good display of spring ephemerals in late April and early May.
- Yellow Birch and Red Maple are often present, as well as a few conifers (Eastern Hemlock or Red Spruce).
- The understory in this ecological community usually has an abundance of Sugar Maple and American Beech tree seedlings, and often includes Hobblebush and Striped Maple.
- Characteristic wildflowers, in addition to the Wild Sarsaparilla, include Canada Mayflower, Common Wood Sorrel, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Starflower, Foamflower, Indian Cucumber-root, Trout Lily, Whorled Wood Aster, Painted Trillium, and Purple Trillium.
- Characteristic ferns include wood ferns, Christmas Ferns, and Hay-scented Ferns.
- Characteristic birds that are seen and heard in this ecological community include Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds, Black-throated Blue Warblers, and Black-throated Green Warblesr.
Look for Wild Sarsaparillas growing along virtually all of the trails covered here, including the Heron Marsh Trail and Boreal Life Trail at the Paul Smith's College VIC, the Loop Trail at Henry's Woods, Heart Lake Trail, Peninsula Nature Trails, Heaven Hill Trails, and Bloomingdale Bog Trail.
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