GINSENG FAMILY - Araliaceae: Spikenard; Indian Root; Spignet
Flowers--Greenish white, small, 5-parted, mostly imperfect, in a drooping compound raceme of rounded clusters. Stem: 3 to 6 ft. high, branches spreading. Roots: Large, thick, fragrant. Leaves: Compounded of heart-shaped, sharply tapering, saw-edged leaflets from 2 to 5 in. long, often downy underneath. Lower leaves often enormous. Fruit: Dark reddish-brown berries.
Preferred Habitat--Rich open woods, wayside thickets, light soil.
Distribution--New Brunswick to Georgia, west to the Mississippi.
A striking, decorative plant, once much sought after for its medicinal virtues--still another herb with which old women delight to dose their victims for any malady from a cold to a carbuncle. Quite a different plant, but a relative, is the one with hairy spike-like shoots from its fragrant roots, from which the "very precious" ointment poured by Mary upon the Saviour's head was made. The nard, an Indian product from that plant, which is still found growing on the distant Himalayas, could then be imported into Palestine only by the rich.
How certain of the winter birds gormandize on the resinous, spicy little berries! A flock of juncos will strip the fruit from every spikenard in the neighborhood the first day it arrives from the North.
It should be understood that the Wild Spikenard, or False Solomon's Seal, has not the remotest connection with this tribe of plants.
The Wild or False Sarsaparilla (A. nudicaulis), so common in woods, hillsides, and thickets, shelters its three spreading umbels of greenish-white flowers in May and June beneath a canopy formed by a large, solitary, compound leaf. The aromatic roots, which run horizontally sometimes three feet or more through the soil, send up a very short, smooth proper stem which lifts a tall leafstalk and a shorter, naked flower-stalk. The single large leaf, of exquisite bronzy tints when young, is compounded of from three to five oval, toothed leaflets on each of its three divisions.
While the true sarsaparilla of medicine should come from a quite different herb that flourishes in Mexico and South America, this one furnishes a commercial substitute enormously used as a blood purifier and cooling summer drink. Burrowing rabbits delight to nibble the long, slender, fragrant roots.