Monday, January 21, 2019

Medicinal Monday - Wild Sarsaparilla

You probably know Sarsaparilla best as a sweet soft drink that was first introduced in the 19th century.  Not to be confused with its tropical cousin belonging to the genus Smilax that is native to  Mexico, the West Indies, and South and Central America, wild sarsaparilla is found in the northern and eastern parts of  North America and grows on creeping underground stems rather than large vines with brambles.  It is a common plant found in the woods of Connecticut.  This plant was used as food when hunting or during wars because it was so sustaining.  In addition, wild sarsaparilla has many medicinal purposes that treated everything from sores to toothaches.

About Sarsaparilla 

Aralia nudicaulis, commonly known as wild sarsaparilla is a flowering plant of northern and eastern North America and can be found in a fairly wide range of habitats, including boreal coniferous and mixed woods forests, as well as in thickets and along bog edges. In the spring underground stems produce compound leaves that are large and finely toothed.  This plant produces tiny globe-shaped white flowers, typically growing in clusters of three that bloom from May through July.  The leaves are bronze in the spring, green in the summer, and yellow or red in the fall.   As the leaves die back purple-black edible berries develop that taste slightly spicy and sweet.  The rhizome of wild sarsaparilla has a sweet, aromatic taste and sometimes it is used as a substitute for sassafras in the making of homemade root beer.

 Medicinal Uses

The Abnaki and Iroquois use a tonic made from this plant to strengthen the blood, and the Algonquin use an infusion of the root to treat children with kidney disorders.  A poultice of chewed roots was applied to treat earaches and a decoction of the root was taken to treat stomach pain.  The Chippewa applied fresh mashed roots to treat sores and chewed the fresh root to stop nosebleeds. An infusion of the root was rubbed on the chest and legs of a horse as a stimulant.  The Cree made a poultice of chewed roots and used it to draw infections out of wounds and would also use it to wash children's teeth to stop the spread of infection, it was also used for teething sickness.  

The Iroquois used the roots in a variety of ways. The most common way it was used was to treat cuts, sores, and ulcers.  The Kwakiutl would beat and roast broken roots and then use them as a remedy for blood spitting and coughing. The Meskwaki made a dressing for burns from the pounded roots.  The Mohegan made a complex compound infusion that included the root of the wild sarsaparilla plant that was taken as a spring tonic and the Ojibwa used an infusion of leaves as a blood medicine and to treat fits. They would also treat fishing nets with the dried root of wild sarsaparilla to attract fish. The Algonquin, Montagnais, and Iroquois reportedly use the berries to make wine. The Kwakiutl roasted the roots for food.

Did you know

The genus name, Aralia is a Latinization of an old French-Canadian name, which may have been derived from the Iroquois language.

Common names for wild sarsaparilla include rabbit root, sweet root, American Sarsaparilla, wild licorice, and Virginia sarsaparilla.

Because this plant grows with groups of three leaves it is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy; the way to tell the difference is that Sarsaparilla lacks a woody base and has fine teeth along the edges of its leaves.

Sarsaparilla Flowers look similar to those of wild leek but don't smell like onions.

American black bears, chipmunks, skunks, whitetail deer, moose, and red fox also enjoy eating the berries of this plant.

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