How to Grow Sarsaparilla

by Jessica Westover

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) grows readily with minimal maintenance, making it an attractive addition to landscapes. Its dainty white flowers with pale green centers bloom in clusters forming delicate pom-poms and discs. The flowers are upstaged by green leaves, each displaying three to seven, serrated leaflets. Deep purple berries follow the flowers, attracting birds and other wildlife. The rhizomes of wild sarsaparilla have been used in rootbeer, and by Native Americans, as an emergency food. The Wild West beverage, sarsaparilla, was made from an entirely different plant, although sarsaparilla has been used as a substitute. Wild sarsaparilla thrives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 8, where it grows best full to partial shade and fast-draining soil with low nutrient contents. This perennial spreads both by seed and an underground root system, increasing its invasive potential.

Items you will need

  • Pruning shears
  • Trash bag
  • Compost mulch
  • Rake
  • Garden hose
  • Shovel
  • Knife
Step 1

Cut back any dead stems from the sarsaparilla plant in the late winter or early spring, just prior to the plant breaking out of dormancy. Cut through each stem, 1/2-inch above ground level, with a pair of pruning shears that have been sterilized with a disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol. Place the stems in a trash bag or on a compost pile. Pick up any fallen leaves or stems and discard them with the other plant material.

Step 2

Pull weeds and remove debris from the ground surrounding the wild sarsaparilla in the spring, just after the first flush of new growth occurs. Spread a 2- to 3-inch deep layer of compost mulch over the ground with a rake to act as a weed barrier, insulate the rhizomes and replenish the soil's nutrients. Spread the mulch 3 to 4 inches away from the plant's stems to ensure proper air circulation and prevent the stems from rotting.

Step 3

Water the wild sarsaparilla when the top 1 to 2 inches of soil becomes dry to the touch. Apply 1/2- to 1-inch of water from a garden hose to the ground surrounding the plant, moistening the soil to a depth of at least 6 inches. Never water so frequently or heavily as to cause the soil to become soggy or develop standing water.

Step 4

Dig up the wild sarsaparilla for division every two years in the late fall once the plant enters dormancy but before the ground freezes. Dig a circle around the plant with a shovel, keeping 4 to 6 inches away from its outer stems. Dig down to a depth of 6 to 10 inches to get underneath the root system. Push the shovel across the bottom of the root ball to cut the plant from the ground. Pull the plant out of the hole, shaking off excess soil from its roots. Cut the plant into sections with a knife, making sure each section contains at least a 4-inch wide section of roots.

Step 5

Choose an area that receives full to partial shade, contains fast draining soil with poor to medium fertility and sits sheltered from heavy winds. Dig one hole for each division you wish to replant, making each hole twice as wide and equal in depth to the corresponding plant's root ball.

Step 6

Place the sarsaparilla division in its hole. Add or remove soil from the hole's bottom, if needed, to position the top of the plant's root ball even with the surrounding ground's surface. Backfill the hole with soil, tamping it down around the roots. Water the plant thoroughly with a garden hose. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost mulch around the plant. Repeat this process to plant each division.

Warnings

  • Do not fertilize wild sarsaparilla as it grows better in soils with low fertility. Replenishing the layer of compost mulch each year will provide enough soil nutrients for the plant.
  • Wild sasaparilla may spread quickly and prove invasive in your area. Check with your local county extension office to determine its invasive status in your region before introducing this plant into your landscape.
  • Wear gloves when spreading compost, digging in the soil or dividing plants to protect your hands from scrapes and pathogens in the soil.

About the Author

Jessica Westover began writing professionally in 2010. She has worked at various greenhouse production facilities and more recently as a personal banking assistant for Zions Bank. Westover graduated from Brigham Young University Idaho in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in horticulture and a minor in accounting.