Elk Clover


Elk Clover in bloom, July 7 2016, headwaters of Sonoma Creek, Sugarloaf Park


Big leaves – some as long as my hand

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.

Posted in Ethnobotany, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pineapple weed

Matricaria discoidea (M. matricarioides)

Image of pineapple weed above from pnwflowers.com

Pineapple weed is commonly found in ‘weedy’ places in North America – in parking lots, well trod paths, and similar places.  It is part of the Aster family & its scientific name is Matricaria disoidea although in some older sources it is identified in the Chamomile genus, Chamomilla.  Pineapple weed gets its name because if you pick the plant and crush it, it smells rather like pineapple.  Like its cousin chamomile, pineapple weed can be used to make tea.  There are many sources online that describe how to gather and make tea from pineapple weed such as here, here and here.  As usual, if collecting  outside one’s garden make sure they are ‘clean’ plants – using plants from a heavily used parking lot is likely not a good idea!  One could also probably make a planter of them or put them in the garden, but be aware they can be a bit ‘weedy’ and may start growing in places you would rather they did not.  On the plus side, they will grow in places other plants might struggle and ‘fill in’ difficult places in a garden or yard.

I had always assumed that pineapple weed as an introduced plant.  I was surprised to find it mentioned in a book on Lewis and Clark that they collected it two centuries ago somewhere in their travels in ID and MT.  In trying to track down sources on this plant, I have found conflicting accounts – some, like Calflora.org list it as native, while the USFS site lists it nationwide as introduced.  Eugene Kozloff’s “Plants of Western Oregon, Washington & British Columbia” list it as ‘probably native’.  If it is an introduced plant, it seems to have arrived before European settlement in the Pacific Northwest.

Looking up the plant in Moerman’s “Native American Ethnobotany” there are numerous peoples from Alaska to Oklahoma who made teas from this plant, from tribes as diverse as Aleut, Costanoan, Cherokee and Chumash.  Most cultures regarded the tea as medicinal – often as a medicine for various gastrointestinal tract upsets, some as a treatment for fevers.  Some Native Alaskan peoples put the pleasant smelling plant in sweat baths.  In Nancy Turner’s “Food Plants of Interior First Peoples” she notes that Okanagan children used to eat the flower tops.  Ktunaxa and Stl’atl’imx people would hang the plants up as an air freshener, or put them in pillows.

To date, I haven’t found any documented traditional use of pineapple weed for western Oregon tribes.  But given that it was well known in so many other places in the west, it seems likely at least some tribes did – as a tea, or possibly in sweat lodges.  Certainly today there are people who still like to use it as a tea, by itself or in a blend with other herbal teas.




Earle, Scott A. and James Reveal.  2003.  Lewis and Clark’s Green World: The Expedition and its Plants.  Farcountry Press, Helena MT.

Kozloff, Eugene.  Plants of Western Oregon, Washington & British Columbia. Timber Press, Portland OR. 2005.

Moerman, Daniel.  1998. Native American Ethnobotany.  Timber Press, Portland OR.

Turner, Nancy.  1997. Food Plants of Interior First Peoples. UBC PRess, Vancouver BC.



Posted in Ethnobotany, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment




Hanis and Milluk Coos:  bi

Galice Creek Athabaskan: tʌnʌ´sh

Chasta Costa Athabaskan: tʌhʌ´sh

Siletz Athabaskan: dee-nvsh

The common manzanita of western Oregon is Arctostaphylos columbiana, and closely related to kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).  It’s a member of the heath family – its other local relatives include wild huckleberries, madrone, and rhododendron.

Coos Bay people picked the berries fall. They were pounded into a fine flour in a grinding basket. Then this manzanita flour was mixed with dried or fresh salmon eggs into a kind of mush or cake. Salmon egg-manzanita cakes were sometimes eaten with bracken fern rhizomes.

I haven’t found much information on the use of manzanita by other western Oregon peoples, but they were so widely eaten in the rest of the west, I assume they did too.

In California, many tribes made ‘cider’ from the berries – by lightly crushing the berries and soaking them in water.  The beverage is supposed to taste a lot like apple cider.  Some also used manzanita medicinally – some Pomo bands made a tea from the bark to treat diarrhea.


Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Dubin, Margaret and Sara-Larus Tolley.  2008.  Seaweed, Salmon, adn Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast. Heyday Books, Berkeley CA.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

Lightfoot, Kent and Otis Parrish.  2009.  California Indians and Their Envinronment; An introduction.  University of California Press.

Posted in Coos, Ethnobotany, SW Oregon Athabaskan | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Native land management

My friend from Grand Ronde has written an interesting blog post on burning and Indian land management.  As he says, 100,000 Native Foresters made Oregon’s forests.

There are some interesting books on Native land management in the far west:  Indians, Fire and the Land edited by Robert Boyd, Keeping it Living edited by Douglas Deur and Nancy Turner, and Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Stinging Nettles

Photo courtesy US Forest Service

Hanis Coos: walláq’as

Milluk Coos: wálaq’as

Siletz Athabaskan: xwutlh-chish

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is part  the nettle family, Urticaceae. This herb grows in moist, nitrogen rich soils. It can grow as tall as two meters, but more typically reaches heights of 1 to 1.5 meters. Young plants often have reddish tinged leaves. Its leaves are opposite with coursely toothed margins. The underside of the leaves and stems have small hollow hairs that contain acids. Touching them causes a mild and uncomfortable burning sensation.

Traditionally, Coos Bay people treated rheumatism by applying the pounded roots to affected joints. 

Young nettles are edible, although they have to be cooked first to remove their ‘sting’.  Typically they are steamed or boiled like spinach.  I have found no references to Oregon coastal peoples eating young nettle greens, but they may have done so. Grace Brainard recalls gathering nettles in spring with her Milluk husband, Emil Brainard, to eat. She recalled that near the nettle patches were plants with furry leaves that when rubbed on the skin took away the stinging sensation caused by touching the nettles. 

Some tribal members today utilize dried nettle leaves for tea.

In western Oregon, dogbane (Apocynum), iris and cattail leaves seemed to be preferred for twine, but in parts of British Columbia nettles were used to make twine.  The plants were gathered in fall, when beginning to die back.  THe stems were stripped of leaves and laid in the sun to dry for several days.  Then the stems were worked to separate the fibers form the pitch and outer skin, pounded and worked into twine.


Grace Brainard interview, Nov 12 2000

Gunther, Erna. 1973. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. University of Washington Press. Seattle, WA.


Stewart, Amy. 2009. Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, NC.

Turner, Nancy. 1998.   Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia.UBC Press, Vancouver BC.

Posted in Coos, SW Oregon Athabaskan | Tagged | Leave a comment

Pitcher plant, part 2

Some time ago I wrote that the Coos Bay people broke off the top part of the Darlingtonia pitcher plant as a quick cup when out hunting.  I stumbled on a note today in Harrington that at least some Southwestern Oregon Athabaskan people did the same.  Norman George (who lived at Smith River, CA on the Oregon-California border and was of Smith River, Chetco and maybe Euchre Creek heritage) said that in SW OR Athabaskan these plants were called shɪshle’ and “were used as a cup for drinking water, breaking off the stem below the flower”. (Harrington 1942 [25]:263b)


Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Posted in Ethnobotany, SW Oregon Athabaskan, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Western water-hemlock, Cicuta douglasii

Stem of poison hemlock, Conium maculatum

The carrot family (Apiaceae) has many plants useful to humans, such as carrots, parsley, fennel, dill, yarrow.  It also happens to contain some poisonous plants.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, if it leads a person to confuse a poisonous plant with an edible one.

Poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, is native to Eurasia but today is naturalized in many parts of North America.  It has a long history of use as a poison – most famously as the means by which Socrates was killed 2400 years ago.  

Western water-hemlock, Cicuta douglasii, is native to the Pacific northwest and is also very toxic.  It can be a problem plant for ranchers as livestock will eat it, and die.

Both of these plants resemble (to varying degrees) edible plants in the carrot family.  It is very important for gardeners (as poison hemlock will invade gardens) and wild food foragers to be able to distinguish the poisonous plants from edible ones.  I recently heard a story of a gathering in western Sonoma county where a woman saw a plant she thought was fennel setting its seeds.  She went to gather the seeds, ate 3, and was promptly sick and had to be taken to the hospital.  It seems to happen a few times every year that people confuse these poisonous plants with edible ones.  So it is very important that people who gather wild carrots, parsley, parsnips or other related plants learn them very well & can distinguish them from their deadly cousins.

Native people recognized the toxicity of western water-hemlock and the fact that it could be confused for cow parsnip or water parsnip.  Lower Umpqua people noted that western water-hemlock was darker than cow parsnip.  In British Columbia, some tribes believed the treatment for water-hemlock poisoning was to drink large amounts of oil or grease.  But the poison is supposed to act quickly, so I would not care to put that to the test.  Symptoms of poisoning are foaming at the mouth, twisting of facial muscles and lockjaw.


Guard, B. Jennifer. 1995, Wetland plants of Orego & Washington. Lone Pine Publishing. Renton, WA.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon. 1994. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska. Lone Pine Publishing, Redmond WA.

Turner, Nancy J. 1997. Food Plants of Interior First Peoples. UBC Press, Vancouver BC, Canada.



Posted in Ethnobotany, Lower Umpqua | Leave a comment