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.
The flowers (and eventually berries) hide beneath the leaves, and unless you’re looking for them, you can miss them completely. The berries are edible, but benefit from the addition of sweetener.
This plant 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 are easy to harvest by hand as long as the soil isn’t too compact, sitting only a few inches under the soil. Just follow it along trying not to break it so you can get as much as possible.