Wild sarsaparilla is a perennial plant that is a member of the ginseng family which also contains two other somewhat similar plants, the dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). The common name refers to the former use of the plant's root as a substitute for sarsaparilla in making root beer. It is medicinally similar to ginseng but not as potent. Used to induce sweat, cleansing the blood, and to invigorate, this plant has many medicinal values.
Distinguishing Features: The early leaves of wild sarsaparilla are often a shiny, bronzy colour that looks similar to early Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) leaves, which emerges at about the same time. Once older, wild sarsaparilla leaflets are finely serrated whereas poison ivy leaves are smooth or coarsely toothed. Anyone new to foraging must be very careful not to confuse the two plants! Wild sarsaparilla stems grow straight up from the ground and divides into a whorl of three stems which branch up and out, each forming 3 to 7 (most often 5) pinnately compound leaflets.
Flowers: Flowers are white in rounded clusters of greenish-white on top of a leafless stem; rounded clusters are 3 to 5 cm wide; flowers have tiny petals. Deending on geograhical location it flowers in late May or June. After blooming, purplish-black berries appear and grow in clusters.
Leaves: Single, long-stalked; 20 to 40 cm tall; rising above the flowers; 3 branching parts each with 3 to 5 ovate leaflets; red-brown to red-green colour (younger leaves), changing to green during the summer. As the temperatures drop in the autumn, the leaves change to yellow or deep red.
Height: 20 to 40 cm (8 to 15”) tall.
Habitat: This plant refers moist deciduous or mixed forests. Wild sarsaparilla prefers light sandy, medium loamy, and heavy clay soils. It can grow in nutritionally poor soil. The plant prefers acid, neutral, and basic soils. It can grow in full shade and semi-shaded areas. The range of this plant includes Alberta east to Newfoundland, south to Georgia, and northwest to Nebraska and North Dakota. There are also populations of this plant in the northwestern US and British Columbia.
Edible parts: A nutritious food, it was often used by the First Nations people during times of battle or when they were hunting because it is sustaining. Young shoots can be cooked as a potherb. A refreshing herbal tea can be made from the root and it has a pleasant flavour. Fruit can be used to make a jelly and wine. In the 1800's, sarsaparilla was popular as a spring tonic.
Other name: American Sarsaparilla.
Similar plants: Ginseng.
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