Last week I went back to Sugarloaf Mountain with one goal: find lady slipper orchids. After four cool, humid hours, the rain started and I had to leave. Never saw any orchids, but I did find some great stands of ferns, a new-to-me violet which I think I’ve id’d correctly, and another new-to-me plant: wild sarsaparilla.
Wild sarsaparilla is a woodland plant found in almost all of Canada, across the northern US, and south along the Appalachian Mountains into South Carolina.
The form of the plant is interesting: there’s a single leaf-bearing stem and a single flowering stem. The flowering stem is shorter, and has three spherical clusters of flowers. The leaf stem looks at first like it has three compound leaves, and many websites describe it this way. The excellent Illinois Wildflowers site describes it as a single leaf, in three discreet segments, each segment comprising three to five leaflets.
“Sarsaparilla” is also the name of a beverage that tastes a lot like root beer. Traditionally it’s flavored with root extracts from any of several different species of Smilax*, all of which go by the common name “sarsaparilla”, and all of which are tropical. Since Aralia nudicalis roots yield a similar flavor, they’ve been used as a substitute for sarsaparilla, as flavoring agents and for medicinal purposes.
*an aside for taxonomy nerds: the two genera aren’t in the same family or even order, but they are in the same class, Magnoliopsida
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