Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

Udo (Aralia cordata) may be one of the largest vegetables you will ever grow in your garden. It is a herbaceous perennial, dying right down to the ground every year, then growing to over two metres in height in the summer, so the spring growth is truly spectacular. Since the young shoots can be eaten, this means that it is also very productive.

Udo is one of the Japanese sansai or ‘mountain herbs’. These are usually foraged from the wild rather than being cultivated, but if you don’t happen to have them growing on a nearby mountain they are often quite simple to grow, especially in a forest garden.

Udo will tolerate quite deep shade, making it very useful for awkward shady spots in the garden. Mine has a privet hedge on two sides and a large bamboo on a third: the only relatively open side is the north – but still it seems quite happy. On the other hand, they don’t seem to mind more open conditions either: the one growing in the local Botanic Garden is on a south-facing wall and seems to be thriving. In fact, it was this plant that first gave me a chance to try out a good range of udo recipes while my own plants were still establishing. Mark Paterson, the curator of the garden, generously gave me permission to carry off part of their prize specimen in the name of research.

Udo - with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Udo – with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Here, the stems emerge in April and are good to eat for a couple of months after that. The skin has a bitter, resinous taste, so it is usually removed – peeled off when the stems are young or pared away as it gets increasingly woody later on. The remaining pith – about an inch in diameter on mature specimens – is juicy and crispy and has a taste that has been described as citrusy but really is very distinctive and like nothing else.

Western sources mostly only describe one way of using udo – slicing the pith thinly then soaking it to get rid of any remaining resiny flavour and using it in salads. This is indeed very nice but it seems a great waste to use such a productive plant in such a limited way. A Japanese blog post suggests using it for both kinpira and tempura. Kinpira involves sautéing thin strips then simmering for a short while with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Both ways use plenty of strong flavours so the skin can be left on and the resiny taste used instead of being disposed of. I have tried both these methods and can testify that they are delicious. I also find that udo makes a great stir fry ingredient and goes well in miso soup.

udo parts


Shoots for tempura: lovage, udo, sweet cicely and hogweed

As well as being a great vegetable, udo is a good ornamental plant, making it very useful for edible-ornamental plantings – just make sure that you plan for the enormous gap it leaves when it dies down in the autumn. It also means that it is a relatively easy plant to get hold of since it is widely sold for this purpose. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and seems to have only two weak spots: the spring growth is a little frost sensitive, so it prefers a growing position that doesn’t get morning sun; and while it is establishing the new growth needs some protection from slugs and snails who like it just as much as I do.

There is also a cultivar of udo called ‘Sun King’ that is widely sold. It has pale yellow foliage and is much less vigorous than the species. It is less use for the pith since stems are smaller, but the growing tips are milder-flavoured and harden off less quickly.

Aralia cordata flower
Aralia cordata, flower 03” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100723103123j:image(Archived by WebCite® at also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.
Aralia cordata fruit
Aralia cordata, fruit 01” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100817141615j:image(Archived by WebCite® at also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.

27 thoughts on “Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

  1. Suzy

    Do you know if you can eat the flower or fruit?
    Also I didn’t understand if it is frost sensitive why should it prefer a position that doesn’t get the morning sun. To stop it heating up too quickly after being affected by frost?
    Really interesting plant.

    1. Alan Carter Post author

      Hi Suzy. I haven’t found any suggestion that the flowers or fruit are edible, although Stephen Barstow, author of Around the World in 80 Plants, does mention eating the immature flower heads on his Facebook page. I haven’t tried them myself. The root is also said to be edible but again I haven’t tried it myself and I don’t know whether it is just the first year root that is worth eating or the mature one as well. Your guess about the morning sun is right – as well as direct frost damage, heating up too quickly can also be damaging.

      1. antvren

        I don’t know about toxicity, but if flavour is anything to go by – I’m happy to eat the odd one while passing. (A mate did try monkshood before he’d ID’d it – yuk, spat it out rapid!) I don’t get many fruits, seed-grown plants are in 8″ pots in the greenhouse, for fear of slug damage in the garden.

  2. Rhizowen

    Japanese acquaintances tell me that “udo” is a term employed for tall people who are rather useless and ultimately a waste of space. I’m hoping I’m not one of those; I’m also hoping that my udo seedlings reach a similar size to the plant shown here. Another excellent post. Thanks.

  3. readrobread

    I’ve tried growing Udo from seed (I’ve not found anyone locally that has plants) with no success. Does anyone know how long the seeds stay viable? (I was using ones purchased at least 2-3 years before planting – though stored well.) Any tips on germination?
    I look forward to growing this plant.

    1. Alan Carter Post author

      I also haven’t ever managed to grow udo from seed, despite several tries. I suspect that seed viability is quite short. The Araliaceae are closely related to the Apiaceae (carrot family), which mostly have quite short periods of viability. Stored seed needs quite long stratification. If you possibly can, get fresh seed and sow immediately. I’m trying to get several strains of udo in the hope of producing my own seed with decent genetic variation.

  4. Jason

    Thanks for this article – I’m going to get one of these for the dark and shady part of my plot.
    There are a few things that I wonder if you would know.
    With all that foliage put on each year this may be a great plant to grow as a mulch /compost plant. If you cut it back during the season does it regrow? Do you know how deep the roots go – would it work as a dynamic accumulator?
    Have you tried forcing the shoots with a bucket in a similar way to sea kale and rhubarb?
    Love the site and keep up the good work.

    1. Alan Carter Post author

      I haven’t tried cutting back or digging up my plants as they aren’t fully established and I don’t want to do anything (apart from eating them) to weaken them. However I suspect the same – that in the long term they will make green manure plants on top of their edible function.
      I’m sure you could blanch them with a bucket, although you would need a big one! In Japan they are often earthed up or forced in cellars. Personally I prefer them in their rather more natural state without blanching or forcing – more like wild sansai.

    2. Andrew Mcmillion

      Its important not to give up on the seeds. They need 3-5 months cold stratification. Planting out in a cold-frame in the fall is probably your best bet. Then dont give up on them even if they dont sprout in the spring. Mine did not sprout before July last year and are looking great now. So the plants I finally planted out today, were sown in the fall of 2015.

  5. rmbroo

    Re blanching with a bucket: Stephen Barstow, in “Around the World in 80 Plants”, says he uses (normal) 45 cm deep builders’ buckets to blanch, and it’s time to harvest when the plants lift the buckets.

    1. Alan Carter Post author

      I discussed blanching with Stephen when he visited my allotment. He uses it a lot, in the way you describe, but I find that just putting a bucket over a plant is a recipe for having it eaten by slugs. We wondered if the difference was due to the harsher winter climate in Norway which tends to kill the slugs.

    1. Alan Carter Post author

      I can’t give you any specific recommendations for seed as I got both my plants as root cuttings. Since you are in Norway I would suggest checking out the amazing Norwegian Seed Savers group.

  6. Miho Sakuraoka

    Thank you for your information about Udo.
    Now I got 3 little pots of udo plant and am ready to plant them in my garden. I have wide area doesn’t get enough sun to grow nothing but garlic chives. My father had udo plant in his garden, but I don’t remember it was invasive or not. If it does spread too much, you can always dig them up.
    I check the usage of udo in Japanese cookpad. Stem, skin, new leaves and flower buds are edible. I use inside of stem for salad. Boil and slice it then add to Sumiso, miso, vinegar and sugar mixture. Buds and new leaves are good for tempura.

  7. Jill Caponi

    My sun king didn’t return this spring. Zone 6. Dappled shade. It was alive and beautiful in the fall.

      1. Devin

        Just ordered some
        Seeds to give it a try, any suggestions? How long did your plants take to get that size?

        1. Alan Post author

          Mine only took a couple of years to get huge, but they came from divisions rather than seed. From seed it would take a bit longer.

          1. Devin

            Awesome! We are going to plant these in our front yard for privacy. However we need the area to be open for piling snow in the winter so these plants are perfect because they die back in the winter. We also love how they are edible! what zone do you garden in? If you don’t mind my asking.

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