Get to Know Our Natives: Spikenard (Aralia racemosa)
I remember with fondness childhood summer evenings at the local drive-in restaurant, enjoying the Root Beer Floats that my parents would buy as a special treat for my sisters and I. It never occurred to me to wonder why that sweet, dark beverage was called “Root Beer”. I certainly never would have guessed that it was because it was made from the roots of plants! Aralia racemosa, commonly known as “Spikenard”, is a native American woodland wildflower whose fleshy, aromatic roots were originally the source of the spicy flavoring for the descriptively named “Root Beer”. In addition to being used as a flavoring, the root of this plant was used in a number of medicinal applications by Native Americans.
Today, Spikenard is valued primarily as an ornamental plant. It thrives in conditions that many plants do not tolerate, including significant shade and dry soil. Being a plant of generous proportions (36”-48” tall, with a spread that can equal twice its height!) it can be used to fill a difficult shaded spot all on its own. It bears upright racemes of small starry greenish-white flowers above large compound leaves in summer. The main attraction, however, comes in autumn when the flowers transform into long, dense clusters of glossy fruit, maturing from bright green to rich burgundy-black. The fruit is highly decorative and is utilized as a food source by birds but is not considered edible for humans. Overall, American Spikenard is a stately woodland native whose large size and showy fall fruit makes it a good fit for the large scale shade garden in need of autumn interest.
Relatively new to the gardening scene is a golden leaf Japanese cousin of our native Spikenard, Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’. In partial shade this one sports brilliant yellow leaves while in dense shade the foliage will appear more chartreuse. It grows roughly 36”-48” tall and as wide. Its brightly colored foliage makes it a great specimen plant to light up the understory of wooded areas. I added one of these to my garden last year and it is rapidly becoming one of my favorites!
by Zannah Crowe