Shrubby Spikenard Thrives in the Shade

American Spikenard’s many berries add drama to the garden as they turn to purple. They have a history of culinary and native American medicinal use.
American Spikenard’s many berries add drama to the garden as they turn to purple. They have a history of culinary and native American medicinal use.
American Spikenard’s many berries add drama to the garden as they turn to purple. They have a history of culinary and native American medicinal use.

American Spikenard is not a shrub—it has no woody structure that stands through the winter—yet it bursts out of the ground in mid-spring, its long, maroon-to-black stems and dark green leaves reaching higher each year as it matures, to a height of up to five feet. Combine this considerable height with large, compound leaves that are subdivided into nine to 21 leaflets, and spikenard makes a formidable plant that you want to give a bit of space to—as if it were, well, a shrub!

An unrelated plant used for aromatherapy and native to India has the same common name, Spikenard (a common problem with common names!), and should not be confused with our native, Aralia racemosa, which is right at home in the Chicago area.

In late June, this easily grown plant starts displaying its blossoms: tiny greenish-white clusters of blooms on long upright stems. After flowers emerge and their main pollinators, bees, have done their work, the real show begins. Racemes loaded with small, showy red berries spill out over the dark-green leaves, the berries eventually turning deep purple. There is no other plant that resembles Spikenard, with its long, branching dark stems, big bushy leaves, and striking berries, yet this North American beauty is rarely seen in Chicago gardens.

The plant grows in a wide range of soils (sandy, clay, loamy), though it’s a denizen of cool, moist, rocky forests, often found on north-facing slopes. It thrives in full shade to part sun, and because it can often coexist happily with tree roots, Spikenard may be successful where few other plants will thrive. It prefers moist soil but will tolerate drought. Plants propagate slowly, both by self-seeding and along spreading rhizomes.

Spikenard is related to Ginseng. Its large, bulbous roots are marvelously aromatic and have been used as tea, in soups, or, like sarsaparilla, to make root beer. Native Americans used the root as medicine, for external use as a poultice for burns, ulcers, skin irritations, and swelling; and the roots and berries together were used for many internal uses, too. The berries can be made into wine, jam, or vinegar. Some gardeners have described American Spikenard as a “neglected native.” Maybe it’s time to pay this showy, shrubby perennial some attention.

Scientific Name American Spikenard: Aralia Racemosa

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