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American Spikenard: A Ginseng Relative

Most of us are familiar with “Ginseng”, the plant that is an adaptogen and grows native in our country. There are five plants in the ginseng family here in our forest. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius), Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), Hairy Sarsaparilla (aralia hispida) and finally, the plant I’m writing of today: American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa).

American Spikenard can be found growing along the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest double loop trail along the lower right loop. It is easily missed except when its large panicles of very small umbels of white flowers appear. The plant can easily grow over eight feet tall in the right environment. On average, it is about four feet tall with purple stems and large compound leaves.

Eventually these tiny flowers produce hundreds of dark purple berries about the size of a beebee. The berries don’t ripen all at once, which makes them particularly difficult to pick. You gently pick one berry or umbel of berries at a time. They have a unique taste that I am unable to describe. I know this because I make Spikenard wine from our Spikenard orchard at home. It produces a potent red wine which is highly acidic. We use it not only to drink, but to cook with.

Native Americans used the Spikenard roots as medicine. The roots, similar to a close relative called Wild Sarsaparilla, have a pleasant aroma. A tea was made from the root that was used for everything from backaches to asthma to healing broken bones, cuts and wounds. Like American Ginseng, the plant was known to be good for everything that ailed you.

When early settlers came into this area, they added Spikenard to their medicine cabinets and found even more uses for it. Juice and oil from the seeds were poured into ears to cure earache and deafness. I do not recommend doing that! In the 19th century medical practitioners like pharmacists and Goodwives prescribed the root as a “blood purifier”.

Spikenards are picky about where they grow. They like wet feet. If the water flow changes, given enough time, the plants move several feet a year to stay by the damp ground. They do not grow in the water. They want damp soil in areas that are shaded.

Bees of all varieties pollinate the tiny flowers and when harvesting you must be careful to avoid the yellow jackets that feed on the fruit. The plant turns bright yellow in the fall and then dies back to ground. The following spring you can see long spikes emerge from the root in the soil and those spikes can grow a foot a day.

I like to call the wine we make from the berry a medicinal wine. It was used as an anti-viral as is Ginseng and I like to imagine that it could help boost my immune system. It certainly tastes great! The plant has not been tested to see if any of the uses can be validated today because the plant is relatively uncommon. Plants like American Spikenard need to be valued and protected. That is why I always get a thrill when I find it along the trail.

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