Plant of the Week
Bristly Sarsaparilla (Aralia hispida)
By Jack Greenlee, Superior National Forest
This shrubby member of the ginseng family (Araliaceae) is found across the northeastern portion of North America, from Saskatchewan to Newfoundland and south to Minnesota, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. Although relatively common across most of its range, it is considered rare in Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio.
The origin of the genus name, Aralia, is not well understood. The species name, hispida, refers to the rough, firm, stiff, hairs on the stem. There are about 30 to 35 species in the genus Aralia worldwide, and two of these occur in Minnesota along with bristly sarsaparilla: wild sarsaparilla (A. nudicaulis) and spikenard (A. racemosa).
Bristly sarsaparilla is a small shrub that can grow up to one meter in height, although commonly it is much smaller. It has weak bristles along the stem that are not strong enough to puncture the skin. The leaves are twice compound, dark green, and have sharply serrate margins. Bristly sarsaparilla flowers grow in a nearly round floral arrangement called an umbel (see photo). The flowers have 5 white petals, and while numerous, the flowers are quite small, about 5 to 6 millimeters in width. The fruit are smooth, dark purple to black, and berry-like. Although they look like a blueberry, they are not edible.
Bristly sarsaparilla typically grows in sunny locations and is well-adapted to droughty sites with gravelly, sandy, or rocky soils. It typically is found in forest openings, tops of cliffs, sand dunes, or in recently burned areas, where it proliferates until the forest begins to regenerate. It is occasionally found in highly disturbed sites like abandoned gravel pits, railroad sidings, and roadsides.
There are a few other plants that this species could be confused with. It is most likely to be confused with its close relative, wild sarsaparilla. Bristly sarsaparilla can be distinguished from wild sarsaparilla by its bristly stem; wild sarsaparilla has a smooth stem, and its leaves occur on a separate stem from its flowers. The bristly stem in winter might look somewhat like raspberry (Rubus spp.), gooseberry (Ribes spp.), or rose (Rosa spp.), but bristly sarsaparilla is much smaller than any of these.