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A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Sunday - September 04, 2011

From: Wendell, MA
Region: Northeast
Topic: Plant Identification, Edible Plants, Medicinal Plants
Title: Identifying a plant similar to sarsaparilla
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

I am trying to identify a plant that looks very similar to sasparilla, but has a ring of blue berries at the end of a long stalk, and the plant itself is spreading, not an isolated herb like sasparilla. I found it in abundance by the side of a pond in open sun.

ANSWER:

First of all, sarsaparilla, the drink featured in Western movies, was made from the roots of plants in the Genus Smilax.  It is also considered a medicinal plant with many different uses.  Its roots are also used as a flavoring in root beer.   Smilax spp. occurring in Central and South America are often the source of the medicinal sarsaparilla.  However, there are several species of Smilax in North America.  Smilax spp. belong to the Family Liliaceae (Lily Family).  Just to complicate matters, there is another genus of plants, Aralia, that has the common name of "sarsaparilla".   Many times these are called "false sarsaparilla".  Aralia spp. are in the Family Araliaceae (Ginseng Family) and their roots have been used as a substitute for the sarsaparilla that comes from the roots of Smilax spp.

There are four plants with the common name of sarsaparilla in our Native Plant Database.  They belong to two different genera:

Now, depending on which one you are referring to as sarsaparilla, here are some native possibilities for the look-alike plant.  If you consider either Aralia nudicaulus or Aralia hispida to be sarsaparilla, here are other Aralia spp. that occur in Massachusetts.  Although their common names don't include "sarsaparilla", they do resemble those of their genus that are called sarsaparilla.

Here is another Aralia sp. that occurs in Massachusetts that is not native to North America:

If you consider Smilax pumila or Smilax glauca to be sarsaparilla, here are other Smilax spp. that occur in Massachusetts.  Although their common names don't include "sarsaparilla", they do resemble those of their genus that are called sarsaparilla.

Here are other Smilax spp. that occur in states adjacent to Massachusetts:

And then there is Sassafras albidum (Sassafras), a tree that grows in Massachusetts up to 35 feet high and whose roots are used to flavor root beer and this flavoring is often confused with sarsaparilla.

Hopefully, you can find your plant in one of the above.  If it isn't there and you have photos of it, you can visit our Plant Identification page to find links to plant identification forums that accept photos for identification.

 

From the Image Gallery


Sarsaparilla vine
Smilax pumila

Wild sarsaparilla
Aralia nudicaulis

Wild sarsaparilla
Aralia nudicaulis

American spikenard
Aralia racemosa

American spikenard
Aralia racemosa

Devil's walking stick
Aralia spinosa

Devil's walking stick
Aralia spinosa

Smooth carrionflower
Smilax herbacea

Sassafras
Sassafras albidum

Sassafras
Sassafras albidum

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