Common Name: Udo, Japanese Spikenard, Mountain Asparagus
Scientific Name: Aralia cordata
Family: Ariliaceae (the Aralia or Ivy family)
Description: Udo is a large, tropical looking herbaceous plant that is very cold hardy, attracts beneficial insects, and has edible shoots (used like asparagus) and leaves (used for salad and cooked greens). On top of all this, it can also grow in deep shade, a niche we often struggle to fill in the Forest Garden. I never tried eating this plant, because I missed my opportunity. I am almost certain there were some shoots available at the Asian market I frequented when I lived in Minnesota, but I was not sure what it was. My timidity cost me my chance; it won’t happen again!
History: Native to Japan, Korea, and eastern China, it is currently cultivated in Japan in underground tunnels. Udo was popular in the U.S. a few generations ago. Many popular seed catalogs offered Udo, but for some reason, the popularity kept waning over the last few decades. However, a few new varieties with lighter leaves are now gaining popularity as an ornamental plant, and these are more widely available. I cannot speak to the flavor of these ornamentals; they may be just as good, but they may not be.
- The plant is called Japanese Spikenard for a reason… it has spikes – well, they are actually more like bristles on the stems.
- The original spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) is a very different plant, almost unrelated. It is from the Himalayas and produces a highly aromatic and prized essential oil. Udo does not.
- There is a Japanese proverb: “Udo no taiboku”, which means “great wood of Udo”… this is a rather sarcastic statement as Udo is herbaceous and has a soft, not woody, stem. It is used to say something is useless.
- Udo that is gathered from the wild is called yamaudo. Udo that is cultivated is called shiroudo.
- Udowormy Tea is a highly prized medicinal tea made from leaves that have been infested with the pupae of the Japanese Beetle… interesting! The tea is said to treat stress and anxiety.
- Udo is related to ginseng, and its roots are often used as a substitute.
- There are some varieties that are bright green and seem to glow in the dark shade at dusk. This has given rise to Udo being called a “glow in the dark” plant.
USING THIS PLANT
- Edible Shoots – Cooked (like asparagus). They are tender, but crisp with a lemony flavor, and some say with a hint of fennel. Blanching is common. It can sometimes have an unpleasant taste, but this is easily removed by boiling in salted water or slicing and soaking in salted water. Some reports state that the shoots can be peeled and eaten raw. In Japan, it is used in miso soup, other soups, vegetable salads, and vinegared.
- Edible Leaves – only very young leaves are used, cooked. A great addition to salads.
- Edible Root – Cooked (very little information available about this).
- General insect (especially bees) nectar plant.
- Wildlife Food Source – birds eat the fruit (which are reported to be toxic to humans)
- Ornamental Plant – a great plant for shade
- Biomass Plant – this large, fast growing plant is herbaceous – meaning it has no woody stems. The entire plant can be used as mulch come Winter. This is a lot of mulch from one herbaceous plant growing in deep shade!
- Medicinal – used in Japanese and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Yield: No good information available.
Harvesting: Shoots are harvested in Spring. Young leaves in Spring and Summer.
Storage: No good information available, but I would recommend treating like Asparagus shoots. Store for as short a time as possible. Same with the leaves.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
AHS Heat Zone: Zone 9-1
Chill Requirement: Not likely, but no reliable information is available.
Plant Type: Very Large Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available.
Pollination: Self-fertile (likely, but no reliable information available). Pollinated by bees.
Flowering: Summer (July-August)
- Years of Useful Life: No good information available. Considering that the plant can be propagated via suckers, and also that it completely dies back in the Winter and reemerges each Spring, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Roots: Suckering roots – new shoots from spreading roots can grow into new plants
Growth Rate: Fast
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Shade: Can grow in partial to full shade
Moisture: Prefers moist soils.
Special Considerations for Growing:
- This is a great plant for the deep shade areas of your gardens or behind structures.
- Many growers recommend wind protection for this plant as the large leaves are susceptible to wind damage.
Propagated by seed. Needs 3-5 months of cold stratification and can take 1-4 months to germinate. Can propagate via root cuttings. Division of suckers when dormant.
Minimal. May need to keep new plants in check if you live in an area where the seeds readily germinate.
- Poisonous – raw berries are reportedly toxic
- Dispersive – there are reports that this plant reproduces easily from seed in certain locations, and birds like to eat the seeds and spread it around
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