In northern Idaho, we’re blessed to have Aralia nudicaulis growing fairly abundantly and, according to Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensatory, it grows from Canada to the Carolinas. Well, I can confirm that it grows in the west as well! It likes mixed, deciduous forests with moist, loamy soil. On our property, we have abundant patches lining our driveway in the more shady part closer to our creek.
Wild sarsaparilla is fairly easy to identify with it’s naked stem popping up from the soil bed and distinctly dividing into three stems that each contain 2-7 leaves. Most often, you will see 5 leaves. The plant usually grows to about one foot high. Some people have mistaken it for poison ivy or the other way around. If you aren’t sure, then get a guidebook out and really examine the plant before touching it!
The flowers (and eventually berries) hide beneath the leaves, and unless you’re looking for them, you can miss them completely. I always think they look like a small fireworks display, so much fun! The berries are edible, but aren’t super tasty, once again sugar to the rescue.
Wild Sarsaparilla is part of the ginseng family (Araliaceae) and provides similar benefits:
Wild sarsaparilla goes by other names, including false sarsaparilla, spikenard, spreading spikenard, wild licorice and American sarsaparilla.
The rhizomes (roots) are the parts primarily used for medicine. Wild sarsaparilla forms colonies, so usually when you find one, you’ll find many. The rhizomes grow only a few inches below the soil and are fairly easy to harvest by hand as long as the soil isn’t too compact. Just follow it along trying not to break it so you can get as much as possible. If it does break, find the rhizome of the next one and begin your work again. It may help to slightly loosen the soil on top to make it easier since the rhizomes are delicate. This is very different than gathering say, dandelion root!
Let us know if you go looking for Wild Sarsaparilla in your area and how it goes! If you want to learn about a new herb each month in depth – consider joining our Herb-A-Month course which is only $5 per month