Aralia nudicaulis

Wild Sarsaparilla

Aralia nudicaulis, Wild Sarsaparilla, Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook
Wild Sarsaparilla
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Aralia,
  • nudicaulis, from the Latin nudus, "bare, naked", and the Greek, kaulos (kaulos), "stem"; hence "bare stem"
  • Sarsaparilla, from ?
  • Other common names include Aralia, False Sarsaparilla, Wild Sarsaparilla, Shot Bush, Small Spikenard, Wild Liquorice, Rabbit Root, Salsepareille


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Rosidae
        • Order Apiales
          • Family Araliaceae, the Ginsengs
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 29376


  • A native, dioecious, perennial forb.
  • Leaves large, solitary, and compound; finely toothed.
  • Leafstalks up to 24" tall with 2-3 compound leaves. Reproductive stalks shorter, to 12", with 2-7 umbels.
  • Rhizomes long, fleshy, horizontal, and creeping; 1¼"- 4½" into the mineral soil, averaging 2½".
  • Flowers small, white; in globular clusters.
  • Fruits berry like, blue black; an average of five seeds per fruit.


  • Ubiquitous northwoods plant; unlike any other.
  • Distinguished from all other plants by distinctive leaf, flower umbel, and fruit cluster.


  • Newfoundland to British Columbia, south to North Carolina and the Intermountain West.


  • Open shade; common in moist or dry woodlands, thickets, riparian areas, and prairie or bog edges. A widespread, dominant understory species throughout the Boreal and Mixed Wood forests.
  • Soils range from fine loamy clay to coarse loam, moderate to rich in nutrients, poorly to well drained. Prefers sandy, acid soil (pH 5-6).
  • Shade tolerant; common over a wide range of climax forests.
  • Phenology:
    • Emerges from leaf litter by mid-April or May;
    • Leaves expand before the canopy closes.
    • Flowers May/July.
    • Fruits mature in about 32 days.
    • Leaves begin to drop by mid-September.
    • Dormant in winter.


  • Fire top-kills; vegetative and reproductive buds are destroyed. Surviving rhizomes sprout and vigorously grow; new rhizomes are produced. Flowers are not initiated during the first growing season following fire.
  • Very few come in as seed immediately following fire.
  • Initially decreasing in frequency and biomass following fire, generally decreasing by half in first year following fire. Can recover within 4 years, with an increase in frequency from 50%-90% of preburn levels. Does well following fire in Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) and White Pine (Pinus strobus) forests of the Lake States, and is prevalent on fresh burns.



  • Used by Native Americans to brew a tea
  • Rhizomes have been used to make beverages such as root beer.


  • Alterative, pectoral, diaphoretic, sudorific. Used as a substitute for Smilax Sarsaparilla is useful inpulmonary diseases and externally as a wash for indolent ulcers and shingles. It is said to be used by the Crees under the name of Rabbit Root for syphilis and as an application to recent wounds. It contains resin, oil, tannin, albumen, an acid, mucilage, and cellulose.


  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by rhizomes.
  • Pollination dependent upon insects such as bumblebees, solitary bees, and syrphids.
  • Germination rates with or without stratification are low (34%).
  • Establishment of seedlings rare and dependent on major disturbances.
  • Seed dispersal by animals such as birds and black bears Germination rates for seeds taken from black bear scat (62%-93%) were significantly higher than for uneaten seeds (27%-28%).
  • Vegetative reproduction; forms extensive colonies by branching rhizomes, producing daughter plants up to 36" from parent.


  • By rhizome division


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Not generally available commercially.



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Last Updated on 26 February, 2004