As I write this in mid-January, I sit and dream about my spring, summer and fall gardens and one of the plants that always brings a smile to my face is my American Spikenard – Aralia racemosa. This large-leaved, shade tolerant plant produces masses of burgundy coloured, edible berries in late summer, early fall that are a favourite of the birds (I find them delicious, too, but the birds usually beat me to them). The plants can get up to 5’ (150 cm) tall, but in ideal conditions can get even bigger. Each fall they die off and re-emerge in the spring like a phoenix. As usual, the Plant Description and In the Garden sections, below, are courtesy of Shaun Booth from In Our Nature.)
Common Name: Spikenard
Scientific Name: Aralia racemosa
Family: Araliaceae (Ginseng Family)
Alternate Common Names: American Spikenard, Hungry Root, Indian Root, Life of Man, Old Man’s Root, Pettymorrel, Small Spikenard, Spiceberry, Spignet
Plant Description: The smooth, maroon-coloured stems of Spikenard hold a few large (up to 60 cm long) compound leaves that are made up of many smaller leaflets, each measuring about 14 cm long. Leaflets are heart shaped at the base, sharply toothed, and abruptly taper to a pointed tip. Spikenard often grows wider than it is tall. Large, tapered flower clusters are made up of many tiny, stalked flowers. Individual flowers are under 1 cm across with five triangular petals. Flower stalks are covered in many fine hairs. Flowers give way to dense, hanging clusters of dark-red-to-purple fruit, 0.5 cm in diameter.
In the Garden: Spikenard is a large, spreading perennial that gives the appearance of a shrub but dies back to the ground every year. It is valued in gardens for its lush leaves, ability to tolerate deep shade and its attractive broad form. The summer flowers bloom at a time when not much else is blooming in shade gardens. The dark red berries look like little jewels but don’t stick around long as they are a favourite food of many songbirds. Excellent as a specimen or in small groups.
Skill Level: Beginner
Exposure: Part shade to full shade
Soil Type: Fertile, humus-rich loams, but tolerates a wide range of soils including rocky and clay ones
Moisture: Wet to medium
Height: 90–150 cm
Spread: 120 cm
Bloom Period: (Jun), Jul, (Aug)
Fragrant (Y/N): Y
Showy Fruit (Y/N): Y – ripening from mid August to early September (in southern Ontario)
Cut Flower (Y/N): Y
Pests: No serious insect or disease problems
Natural Habitat: Rich, usually moist beech-maple and hemlock-hardwood forests, especially along edges and clearings and in cedar swamps
Wildlife Value: The berries of Aralia spp. are eaten by woodland songbirds and some small mammals
Butterfly Larva Host Plant For: None
Moth Larva Host Plant For: None
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3–8
Propagation: Sow seeds immediately or keep moist. Germination is enhanced with scarification, either in a mild sulphuric acid or by rubbing with sandpaper. Cold, moist stratification may help germination, but artificial stratification seems to be hit-and-miss with these seeds. Easiest propagation is to divide old rootstocks when the plants go dormant in the fall, though plants may be slow to bloom after being disturbed. Plants may also be started from root cuttings.
Additional Info: Plants will slowly spread over time by self-seeding and creeping rhizomes to form thickets.
Edibility: Although I don’t usually comment on the edibility of garden plants, I will make an exception in this case. The ripe 4-6 mm diameter fruit has a very pleasant taste and can be used to make juice, fruit leathers, jellies, etc. Each berry does contain several seeds, so when you eat them raw (I find them quite delicious) you’ll be spitting out seeds. The root can be used in soups and imparts a spicy, anise-like flavouring (it has been used as a substitute for Wild Sarsaparilla – Aralia nudicaulis – to make root beer) and the young shoot tips can be cooked as a vegetable or used to flavour soups.
Native Range: native throughout the southern Great Lakes region