Aralia Nudicaulis ~The Wild Ways of American Sarsaparilla

Botanical NameAralia Nudicaulis. A member of the Araliaceae or Ginseng family

Aralia nudicaulis

Status: Native to North American in boreal forests. It is found beneath hardwoods in rich soil.

Common names: Wild Sarsparilla, American Sarsparilla, Small Spikenard, False Sarsparilla, Wild Licorice, Rabbit Root

Description: A perennial that grows in the woods of the Northern United States and Canada. The leaf stalk grows up to 18” tall with compound leaves that branch out into 3 groups of 5 each. The flower is an umbel that comes up beneath the leaves in groups of 3. The leaves die back in the summer leaving the flowers to ripen into purplish black berries. The root is gathered although all parts of the plant can be used. The main root grows vertically down just a few inches but there are secondary runners that grow horizontally. New plants emerge from these underground rhizomes forming interconnected colonies. Gather in the Spring or Fall.

Taste: sweet, pungent, aromatic

Energetics: Cool, moist, oily

Actions: tonic, alterative, antisyphilitic, diaphoretic

Preparation: decoction of dried root or alcohol tincture. Tincture dose- 15-30 drops 3-4 x per day


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Metaphysical pattern-Aralia Nudicaulis provides nourishment for the body and soul in a gentle but profound way. It has roots(actually underground stems) that grow laterally. This signifies communication that is dispersed in a web of synapse alongside the mycelial network. This transmits  information in a matrix that, instead of being concentrated up and down, is dispersed outward where it is less centered, more continuous and evenly distributed. This offers sensory intelligence that is less polar, more insulated and therefore less interrupted. This contiguity allows for easy networking from plant to plant providing steadily accessible nutrients, perception and expression. This patternis different in contrast with American Ginseng, another aralia, that has a solid, centered root and conveys a strong message and presence. Wild Sarsparilla has less compact energy and is much more celestial in presence with its horizontal connection being held by the Earth's magnetic field as a wave instead of as a solid, directive force. When standing among a patch, or really it’s a sea, of Wild Sarsparilla there is always a feeling of aliveness, awareness and alertness but without feeling over- stimulated, as if my cells are being provided just the precise amount of energy required that can be effectively metabolized and released. When we can facilitate our energy laterally it offers us the opportunity to disseminate it outward while still being able to hold it in our field for further access and reflection.


Wild Sarsparilla was used by the Haudenosaunee(Iroquois) as “Blood medicine”, for upset stomach, rheumatism and diabetes. The recommendations are to steep a handful of the root in 4 quarts of water and “drink any quantity anytime”.  It was one of nineteen plants used in one woman’s(Sarah Snow) special blood tonic formula. Her gathering practice was sacred and offerings of tobacco were made to each plant:

It takes about a pound and a half of tobacco to make this medicine. The tobacco is used at every plant that is taken for the formula. She gathers the plants during the last part of September, in the Fall of the year. She always sprinkles tobacco at the side of the first plant of a variety, and this plant she does not take, but takes the next one. She makes a little hole with her hand parting the brush to clear a space on the ground next to the plant, and then covers it over afterward by placing the brush so that other people do not see it. Then she says a prayer.” ~Iroquois Medical Botany


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Wild Sarsparilla is well known as an alterative or a blood purifier and is often considered correlative to Sarsparilla of the  Smilax genera that grows sub- tropically. Both are considered to be alterative, but Aralia Nudicaulis has a stronger affinity to normalizing hormones, particularly excess androgens because it has the ability to enable efficient cellular metabolism. Being in the Ginseng family it is nourishing and can provoke our internal capacity to maintain dynamic equilibrium and it this quality that also helps to balance hormones. Because it is particularly helpful in regulating excess androgen levels it is a good choice for acne in teenagers and those with polycystic varian syndrome

Wild Sarsparilla is highly nourishing with significant amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc along with starch, sugars, resins, saponins, pectin and volatile oils.  The impressive mineral content makes this plant a good choice to improve bone growth, increase the flexibility of connective tissue and as a treatment for arthritis. Being that it is considered to have the nourishing qualities of rabbit medicine by the Cree, it is indicated where disease or lack of nutrition has led to muscle wasting, weight loss, and general weakness. It’s saponins contribute to it’s effect on arthritis as they provide an anti-inflammatory quality. Wild Sarsparilla has been used for rheumatoid arthritis, not only because it is anti-inflammatory, but also because it also seems to modulate immune function and therefore may down-regulate auto-immune response. It’s blood purifying action contributes by encouraging the removal of stagnant waste products that often build up in the joints and tissues with this condition.

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Wild Sarsparilla and the Smilax variety are both considered useful in the treatment of Syphilis, with Smilax now being used in modern herbal medicine as a primary remedy for Lyme disease; both Lyme and Syphilis being infections by spirochetal bacteria. Smilax Sarsparilla is used presently as an anti-sprirochetal and anti-bacterial. Both of these plants, are alterative and will bind endotoxins in the blood protecting against the Herxheimer reaction that is caused by spirochetal die off during treatment. Aralia nudicaulis itself has been shown in recent research to be anti-mycobacteria with its two constituents, falcarinol and panaxydol, being identified as the active elements. Mycobacteria are gram positive and cause a variety of illness, the most common being Tuberculosis.

“It is relaxant and gently stimulant; mild and moderately slow in action; and expending its properties chiefly upon the skin and kidneys, and moderately upon the mucous structures of the lungs and uterus. It is mainly valued for its influence upon the first-named secernents, for which it enjoys a just repute as an alterant. It is principally used in mild secondary syphilis, and in cutaneous affections connected with irritability. It is seldom employed in pulmonary difficulties; yet is good whenever the lungs need a mild expectorant with stimulation. In the same way, it may be used in simple cases of leucorrhea and weakness of the back. Boiling impairs its properties. A decoction may be made by steeping an ounce of the root in a pint of boiling water; one half of which may be used in twenty-four hours. In preparing it for sirups, it is oftenest combined with such articles as arctium, celastrus, and menispermum; and treated by percolation.” The Physiomedical Dispensatory

Sarsparilla’s alterative properties lend itself to its use as a treatment for diabetes . Being alterative it provides the necessary qualities needed by the cells to be able to process and eliminate sugars through the bloodstream and liver. Diabetes also can be related to hormone production and conversion which this plant also supports as mentioned above.

It has other known uses as an external remedy for skin conditions of any nature including burns, shingles and fungal infections such as ringworm. It is considered useful as an expectorant and used for coughs, colds and irritated mucus membranes.

Although Wild Sarsparilla is not a widely used plant it was one that I have come to cherish and value. I use it often and it is a primary member of my apothecary. It’s major uses are a just a few of many and I hope to explore its finer qualities in the future. It is quite common and prolific in our Northeastern forests and, although it doesn’t provide the intensity of action that it’s relative American Ginseng offers, it’s therapeutic ability is equally as capable of re-organizing patterns of imbalance and resolving obstacles to optimal health and resilience.



The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood

A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve :

 The Physiomedical Dispensatory by William Cook, M.D., 1869

Anti-mycobacterial diynes from the Canadian medicinal plant Aralia nudicaulis,. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Mar 6

Iroquois Medical Botany by James W. Herrick

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