Sarsaparilla is one of the plants I admire the most, as it is a stalwart of many northeastern forests, and its unassuming nature currently protects it from over-harvest. It’s a plant with a lot of secrets that are overlooked by those who fly through nature in running shoes, mountain bikes, or four-wheelers. Its roots produce a subtle, but exhilarating scent and flavor that was once revered by Native Americans and colonists for its medicinal value and ability to serve as a root-beer substitute, but has since been largely forgotten except by the Maine Roots soda company. And, its flower is one of the most eccentric of any northeastern plant—a fantastic globe hiding beneath the leaves, enjoyed only by those willing to crouch down and examine the forest floor. It’s also a plant that reminds me of simpler times when exotic fruits, spices, and flavors were harder to come by, and Native Americans or colonists had to search the local forests for zest. In many ways it embodies New England.
Sarsaparilla’s flavor is as unique as its character and tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had. I have to agree with Tom Seymour (2002) that it smells like an old time general store. I would add that it also tastes like you would imagine an old time general store would taste, if it had a taste. The whole sarsaparilla experience creates a deep nostalgia for me, reminding me of endless August afternoons as a kid growing up in the countryside of New Hampshire, riding in my grandfather’s old pick-up truck down to the corner store where we would buy Swedish fish for a penny each. Sarsaparilla is like a hidden thread in the New England experience connecting native people thousands of years ago to colonists to civil war folks to a small group of people clinging to ancient local food traditions against the bombardment of mono-culture fast food, frozen dinners, and reality TV.
Please revere this plant with me, and help me appreciate it without allowing it to become a commodity that is subject to overharvest the way its cousin, ginseng, was. If the northeast ever loses its sarsaparilla by the human hand, then I may lose my faith as an environmentalist.
- Roots used to make tea or soda
- Shoots and leaves may be edible raw or cooked according to some sources (Couplan, 1998), though I have not tried them myself
- The edibility of this plant, in general, is not widely discussed in mainstream foraging texts, except by Tom Seymour
Sarsaparilla has three main leaf segments branching from the same point in the stem. Each of these leaf segments has five leaflets arranged pinnately along the stem. The leaflets are finely serrated and have a prominent mid-vein. It is a fairly dull-looking plant and can easily be overlooked even though it is widely abundant and appears in many of the mixed hard-wood forest types in the northeast.
If, however, you view it when it’s flowering in late spring and early summer, you may see a few, unique globular flower heads made up of more than two dozen greenish-yellowish-whitish flowers that are almost spikey in appearance from their tiny, but relatively long stamens. The flower heads are often under the leaflets. The flower stalks themselves have no leaves on them.
The circular main stem of the plant sometimes has a reddish or purplish segment at the point at which it enters the ground. Below this is often a series of prominent constrictions on the root that you can clearly see and feel. The rest of the root is a long runner with a thin brown bark that can easily be peeled back by your fingernails, revealing a stark white inside. The root often has a short spur shooting out in a different direction from the runner, just below the main stem. If you follow one runner, it will often lead to another plant. Sometimes an entire colony can be connected by their roots. The roots usually don’t dive more than a few inches below the surface of the ground. They mostly run horizontally.
A major identifying feature is their subtle, but prominent old country store smell (Seymour, 2002) that you’ll be able to detect from scraping or scratching the roots.
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Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) is a closely related species with potentially poisonous berries (Turner & von Aderkas, 2009) and perhaps other poisonous parts. The non-native poison mercury (Mercurialis perennis) is also a potential look-alike. Poison mercury has been documented in Maine and Massachusetts (Haines, 2011).
It’s possible that the immature plant in early spring could resemble poison ivy, but poison ivy has three leaves while sarsaparilla usually has five leaflets. I would avoid any look-alike with three leaves or leaflets.
Be aware that some people may develop a skin rash after handling the roots and bark (Couplan, 1998), though I’ve never experienced this myself.
I only eat the roots of Sarsaparilla. You can usually harvest them without any kind of digging tool except your bare hands. They grow so close to the top of the soil, that I can usually just pull up gently on the plant, get a hold of the roots with one hand, and use my other hand to follow the root underground, loosening it from the soil and entanglements with roots from other plants. It’s kind of fun to see how far you can follow the root before it dives under an immobile rock or a large tree root. I’ve been able to harvest pieces that are over four feet long. For ease of harvest and to protect ecological sensitivity, I often harvest roots from trail sides where the above ground plant is likely to get trampled anyway. But, never take too much from one place. The root system is important to holding the soil in place from erosion along trails and stream sides. It is also an important role player in the native flora, staving off would-be invasive invaders. I take no more than 1/5th of any patch on level land and after harvesting the root, I put the unearthed soil back. In steep areas where there could be erosion, I take no more than 10% of the roots. Keep in mind that you don’t need very much to make a lot of tea or soda. Four inches of root will make a pretty flavorful cup.
I use the peeled roots to make fresh or dried tea. Fresh, the roots will last over a week in the fridge. Dried, the roots will last over six months if kept in a tight fitting container out of the sun.
To make tea, just chop the roots and add to a loose leaf tea compartment, pour boiling water over them and let them steep. Sometimes I also put them in boiling water and simmer the water for 10 minutes. It’s best to strain out the roots before drinking the tea. A half tablespoon of roots is good enough for tea.
To make soda, you can chop the roots, simmer them for 10 minutes, add sugar and then add the mixture to club soda. You can also make wild ferment soda, which I prefer. This is a 5-7 day process, starting with a starter bug made from raw roots, room temperature water, and sugar, followed by the addition of simmered roots with cardamom, vanilla, and sugar, followed by more fermentation for several days. I’ve spent two years trying to perfect my recipe for this and I’m not there yet. The sarsaparilla flavor can be easily overpowered by vanilla and cardamom, and the wild fermentation requires a fair amount of sugar, but not too much, as this will also overpower the flavor. The entire process is a very delicate balancing act that is also affected by the variables of air temperature and specific colonies of bacteria living in the roots. For tips on making wild soda, I would recommend Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation and I would practice patience because it can be a challenging exercise. Also, bear in mind that wild soda does not taste like regular soda—if you’re expecting store-bought soda, you’ll be disappointed. The carbonation is made from micro-organisms in wild soda, versus by machines in regular soda.