There are times when you go looking for plants without any expectations. I really like those hikes because you never know what you're going to find. Inevitably you end up meeting a lot of old friends but every once in a while you meet a plant that completely throws you for a loop. Aralia racemosa is that plant.
More commonly referred to as spikenard, Aralia racemosa is both a large and stunningly beautiful member of the same family as ginseng. Growing upwards of 5 feet, its deep purple stem zigzags as it throws out some of the largest compound leaves on any native forb I have ever come across. Each leaf consists of multiple egg-shaped leaflets. Between the stem and each branch grows a long raceme packed full of circular flower bundles. In full bloom, the flowers are crawling with a myriad of insects.
Standing near this plant, you begin to pick up a rather pleasant odor. Somewhere between sweet and spicy, the entire plant seems to exude a scent that fills the surrounding air. Indeed, this plant is chocked full of different chemical compounds. The flowers eventually give way to dense clusters of green berries that gradually ripen to a deep purple. The contrast between ripe and unripe berries is rather stark and it is believed that the juxtaposition is to better attract birds, which are the main seed dispersers of this plant.
Genetic analysis has shown that Aralia racemosa is a sister species to Aralia californica in the west. This could be the result of disjunction and consequent speciation brought on by the glaciers. Either way, Aralia racemosa is easily one of the coolest plants I have ever met. I don't know why I don't see it more often. With its staggering beauty and robust growth, it is rather hard to miss. Aralia racemosa would be a great addition to a native shade garden as well.