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In Chippewa, wabos’odji’bik meaning “rabbit root”, wild sarsaparilla is a prized edible and medicinal herb. And not just for the rootbeer. (Though that’d be enough for me!)
Wild sarsaparilla’s folk names include rabbit foot and wild licorice. In some of my herbal books, it’s called spikenard instead. But there are many plants called spikenard. And confusingly, a more popular tropical species (smilax spp.) is also called sarsaparilla.
There’s also the slightly larger bristly sarsaparilla (aralia hispida) in our area of Central Ontario, which can be told apart by the bristly hairs on its stems. The bristly sarsaparilla also has more of a penchant for streams, ponds, and lakes. Take note that its uses are not identical.
Wild sarsaparilla’s wild allies include the eastern chipmunk and black bear, and feathered friends like the Swainson’s and wood thrushes, and white-throated sparrows.
Edible Uses of Wild Sarsaparilla
Young shoots can be used as a potherb.
The rhizomes are edible and have been used to make beer, and the berries have been used to add flavor to beer and wine. The berries alone are not so palatable.
Make sure you’re familiar with the highly poisonous baneberries (Actaea spp.) in our area if you’re harvesting wild sarsaparilla. They are similar looking and grow in the same spots.
I got a kick out of seeing antique Sarsaparilla bottles at Antiques On Hwy 48 – as I was writing this blogpost. It was originally made from sassafras, and later from the tropical “sarsaparilla” (not the species featured here! Although some old recipes do call for our wild sarsaparilla by its Latin name.)
Medicinal Uses of Wild Sarsaparilla
Wild sarsparilla is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Alterative and Diaphoretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes roots as a weaker version of ginseng, which is traditionally used to invigorate. While some sources say it’s used as a substitute for the tropical sarsaparilla (smilax spp.), and it has been used as such (but was that just out of confusion?), I’m told that is no longer the case (see comments below).
Growing Aralia Nudicaulis
I’ve seen wild sarsaparilla growing, even aggressively spreading, mostly along the edges of trails in shady moist woods. And sometimes along the edges of dirt sideroads, showing a tolerance for poor soils. While you could grow from seed it’s probably easiest to replant the suckers. It’s a wonderful native plant to sow amongst your spring ephemerals in your woods and will put on quite the golden display in autumn:
It’s a diuretic.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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