Aralia is a genus of nearly 70 different species that exhibit a diverse array of growth habits. Some reach tree-like proportions, while others are nothing more than shrubs. Some of the large varieties grow as multi-stemmed plants, slightly reminiscent of both bamboo and tropical palms. Many members of the genus bear impressive spines, which lead to common names like spikenard, Hercules’ club and Devil’s walking stick.
Distinctive Leaf Arrangement
Despite their varied characteristics, all species in the genus Araliahave very distinctive, bi-pinnately compound leaves. This means that instead of having leaves that connect directly to the twigs via a small stem (simple leaves), or having leaflets which combine to form a single leaf (compound), Aralia plants have stems that emerge from the twig, and split into a collection of sub-stems, each of which bear several leaflets. At a glance, the leaf appears to contain two ranks of twigs.
Growth and Culture
Aralia species grow naturally in several parts of the United States, so they can often be seen in forests and other natural habitats. However, they are also grown ornamentally as specimens, hedges or borders. In fact, some people have begun growing Aralia species indoors. This is possible in part because many Aralia are understory species that grow well in low light levels, and remain small enough to work in interior applications.
Despite the number common traits found across all species in the genus, Aralia species still exhibit considerable diversity. Some of the most noteworthy species include:
- Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) – The Devil’s walking stick is native to the southeastern United States, from upstate New York across to eastern Texas. It prefers well-drained soils and does best in U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. Devil’s walking stick is an understory species, that thrives best in partial- to full-sun. Some people eat the tender young leaves of this plant, and Native Americans often incorporated the seeds into their diet.
- American spikenard (Aralia racemose) –Native to the eastern United States, the American spikenard is an ornamental species, prized for its attractive foliage and dark red fruit. Like many other Aralia species, the American spikenard thrives in shady habitats.
- California spikenard (Aralia californica) –Unlike some of its eastern relatives, which range through a dozen or more states, the California spikenard is only native to California and parts of Oregon. Although it never becomes woody, this attractive shrub may approach 10 feet in height. Known locally as elk clover, California spikenard features long, divided leaves. A popular ornamental plant, the California spikenard thrives in U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zones 3 through 8.
- Japanese spikenard (Aralia cordata) – Because it grows as an herbaceous perennial, and its new shoots are eaten by many of those who live alongside it, the Japanese spikenard is also known as mountain asparagus.Reaching about 6 feet in height, Japanese spikenard is a fast-growing plant that thrives best in acidic soils. It commonly grows on wooded hillsides in Eastern Asia.
- Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata) –Like those of the Japanese spikenard, the young shoots of the Japanese angelica tree are also widely consumed by humans. This species grows in a tree-like form, occasionally reaching 30 feet or more in height. Like the Devil’s walking stick, the Japanese angelica tree produces sharp bark prickles which help to protect the trees from predators.