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Aralia spp. L. 1753
pronounced: uh-RAY-lee-uh species
(Araliaceae – the ivy family)
common name: Aralia, Spikenard, Indian Root
Aralia is the Latinized form of the old French-Canadian name for Aralie, or Schefflera urbaniana, a plant it slightly resembles. The true spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora or Nardostachys jatamansi) is a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of China, India and Nepal. It was used in ancient times to make a perfumed ointment. This ointment is mentioned several times in the bible, and it was the ointment Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus. This is not the same plant, but several species of Aralia have roots that are spicy and aromatic.
Some of the plants pictured, though known to gardeners as Aralia, may now be placed in the allied Polyscias genus. There has been a certain amount of coming and going between the genera, and I am not sure of my identifications.
As a boy, I took a strong dislike to Aralia because of the large black ‘stink beetle’ it harboured. There was a line of the plants growing close to one side of our house, and, in those days before houses were insect-screened, the beetles often managed to penetrate indoors. When one went to remove such a beetle (they are non-flying), it lifted its rear end and emitted an appalling stink. As far as I can tell, this beetle is a member of the genus Eleodes. Ever since, I have not been able to look at that species of Aralia without shuddering.
The Aralia genus consists of both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, and some rhizomatous herbaceous perennials. It is native to Asia and the Americas, with most species occurring in mountain woodlands. The species vary in size, with some herbaceous species reaching only 50 cm in height, while some are large trees that can grow to 20 m. The ones pictured form a very attractive tall hedge.
Aralia species have large bipinnate leaves, sometimes covered with bristles, clustered at the end of the branches. The flowers are whitish or greenish, occurring in terminal panicles. The spherical dark purple berry-like fruits are popular with birds.
The plant known as American Spikenard or Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia racemosa) grows as a multi-branched stem that can reach nearly 2 m in height. It has very large leaves consisting of thin, oval, heart-shaped, double saw-toothed leaflets. The root, which is the part used medicinally, is thick and large, spicy and aromatic.
Native Americans were the first to discover its medicinal properties, hence the name Indian Root. The Ojibwa used it in a poultice for broken bones. The Cherokee drank spikenard tea for backache, and the Shawnee used it to treat coughs, asthma and chest pains. Several tribes also used as a tonic to speed labour in the last days of pregnancy. The Micmac applied a salve of spikenard to cuts and wounds.
Early European settlers added it to their medicine chests and found even more uses for it. Juice from the berries and oil from the seeds were poured into the ears to treat earache and deafness. Doctors in the 19th century prescribed the root to treat diseases in which it was deemed necessary to ‘purify the blood’. Like Sarsaparilla, Indian Root was used to make root beer and other tonic drinks.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 15th July 2018