En Español

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

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.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?

Share

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
    
 
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions

Please forgive us, but Mr. Smarty Plants has been overwhelmed by a flood of mail and must take a break for awhile to catch up. We hope to be accepting new questions again soon. Thank you!

Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.

 
rate this answer
1 rating

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

More Medicinal Plants Questions

How to grow Blue Cohosh in Lewisville TX
May 05, 2010 - I bought Blue Cohosh seeds from an online website, but I do not know how or where to plant them and what will guarantee germination, and the instructions that came with the package are very vague. The...
view the full question and answer

Texas plants useful to early settlers
June 05, 2012 - I'm working on some interpretation for a prairie heritage trail in SE TX (near Houston). I'd like to know where I can find some good information on plant remedies which might have been used by early...
view the full question and answer

Pictures and information on Scutellaris laterifolia, Blue Skullcap
June 19, 2006 - I am trying to find information on Scutellaria laterifolia (skullcap), of the plant family "labiatea". Do you have any info or pictures? Thanks.
view the full question and answer

Question about Allamanda cathartica
July 29, 2008 - how would i prove that allamanda cathartica is an antidote for anti-tetanus in a cheaper way?
view the full question and answer

Use of cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) for tea
February 20, 2006 - Back in the 50's when I spent the summers with my grandmother south of Hondo, Texas, she use to pick leaves from the cenizo (purple sage) bushes, dry them and then brew them for tea. I asked one of m...
view the full question and answer

Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.
E-NEWSLETTER | BECOME A MEMBER | DONATE NOW | MEDIA | JOBS | SITEMAP | STAFF INTRANET
© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center