A plant known as ‘elk clover’ (a funny name as the leaves look nothing like clover, but perhaps it got the name from the general shape of its flowers) or ‘California spikenard’ is a forb found in shady forests near streams in California and southwestern Oregon, although there are several populations reported growing in or near the western Cascades east of Eugene and Corvallis which is rarely noted in botanical field guides. And in my copy of the old 1934 field guide by Haskins, the book’s previous owner noted in its pages she saw the plant at Silver Creek Falls. Its scientific name is Aralia californica and is a member of the Ginseng family. It is only one of two members of this family native to Oregon (the other being the notoriously spiney devil’s club, Oplopanax horridus).
It has huge leaves – which herbalist Michael Moore described as looking like ‘Elderberries on growth hormone’ which is an apt description. Its small white flowers bloom in summer which become small dark berries. The plant can reach heights of three meters, but it isn’t a woody shrub, it’s an unusually tall forb which dies back every fall. I picked some of its leaves – it has a strong smell a bit hard to describe. My daughter said it smelled like rattlesnake beans taste – the leaves do have a freshly picked greenbean herbaceous smell. The plant was used medicinally by many California tribes. Usually the roots were used to make the medicine, and this is the part used by contemporary herbalists as well. Michael Moore described the roots as ‘gensinglike’ and “The fleshy roots taste balsamic and bittersweet.”
In California’s Sonoma county, the Kashaya Pomo called this plant siṭ’abá•ti’ and people boiled the root to make a medicine for external application only, for sores and itchy skin. The roots were gathered in July and August.
The Karuk people also made a decoction of roots as a soak for arthritis (although some people disliked the smell of the plant and preferred not to use it). Many tribes in Mendocino county used the roots to make a decoction to treat colds, fevers, stomach problems, and tuberculosis.
So far, I have found no mention in ethnographic sources for Oregon tribes that mention elk clover. However, I suspect that many southwestern Oregon tribes (and maybe the Kalapuya and Mollala as well) were familiar with it just as our California cousins to the south were, and knew it as a medicine.
Haskin, Leslie. 1934. Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast. Binfords, and Mort, Portland, OR.
Kozloff, Eugene N. 1983. Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast: An Illustrated Guide to Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press. Portland, OR.
Moore, Michael. 1993 Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, Santa Fe, NM.
Schenk, Sara M. and E. W. Gifford. 1952. Anthropological Records 13:6: Karok Ethnobotany. University of California Press.