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CALIFORNIA SPIKENARD

Aralia californica

Family: Araliaceae

Other common names: California ginseng, River Medicine and Aralia

Ecology & How to Locate

In southern Oregon the plant is most commonly found in riparian areas along streams.  

During the transition from fall to winter, Aralia californica goes from a robust plant, sometimes towering 6-9 feet tall, to a pile of leaf litter.  Although a perennial, this plant regrows every season; in April-May it is found emerging from leaf litter.  A plant becomes dormant as an adaptation to the adverse environmental growing conditions of winter (Capon, 2010).  Aralia californica is most commonly found in shady environments along seasonal creeks.  During winter these can be dark, cold places, and are either covered with snow or rushing with rising water.  By dying back in winter, Aralia californica effectively avoids being crushed by snow or dismembered by swift waters or winter storms.             

How to Identify

Flower – Aralia californica flowers June-Spetember (Preston & McClintock, 2012).  Its flowers are described as white to yellow-green depending on the source. Characteristic of Aralia californica flowers are 5 sepals- connate at the base, 5 radial calyx symmetry, 5 petals-distinct, 5 stamens-distinct, stamens free from the petals and alternate with the petals, 1-15 carpels, inferior ovaries, perfect-complete flowers, and dioecious (Preston & McClintock, 2012).  

Berry – These flowers mature into blue-black juicy berries the size of peppercorns in early fall (Moore, n.d.).  After the fruit has set, fallen, or been consumed by birds, the plant turns a creamy yellow and then dies back to the ground and returns the following spring (Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, n.d.).

 

Leaf – Leaves are 1-3 odd pinnately or tri pinnately compound.  Leaf attachments have petiole less than 3 decimeters and are in an opposite formation. Leaf margins are serrate and have bases that are cordate to obtuse with apices that are acuminate.  Aralia californica’s leaves are also thin, which is common among shade tolerant plants; thin leaves allow sunlight to penetrate and reach leaves that closer to the ground. 

Stem - Stems are 2-3m, stout. 

 

Root

Uses

Parts used

Root and Rhizome and Berries

Edible uses

Berries - used as a sweetener 

Medicinal uses

These plants are often used as stimulants and irritants, inducing secretions and increased intestinal and liver function (Moore, n.d.).  Their medicine can be used tonically over long periods of time and are indicated in adrenal cortex hypofunctions and hyperlipidemia blood serum levels (Moore, n.d.).  They also offer Ginseng-like adaptogenic effects including modifying metabolic and emotional stresses.

Other plants in bioregion with similar medicinal uses

Lomatium

Toxicity

Should not be taken during pregnancy due to its stimulating effects.

 

Must be used in moderation due to its high saponin content.

Energetics

Loves to grow in the rushing river.  That signature imbues it with a mobile energetic, one that promotes movement in mind and body.  Allows one to go with the natural flow of life.  When drinking the tea or taking a tincture, it instantly feels like you’re taking a breath of fresh air.

When sitting or working with the plant, it is voluptuous, strong and stout.  After you walk away feeling inspired, held and nourished 

Qualities

Pungent and cooling. 

 

Harvesting & Preparations

Ethical Wildcrafting

New plants of Aralia californica are established in one of two ways: either by seed or by rhizome.  Aralia californica reproduces via rhizome with more frequency and success than by seed.  Colonies of Aralia californicaare often made up of only several individual plants, each respective individual reproducing via vegetative reproduction.  Species in the genera Aralia form extensive colonies by vegetative reproduction namely through the spread of rhizomes.  Cook (1983) noted that members of the related species Aralia nudicaulis, which grows in similar ecosystems as Aralia californica, can have rhizomes that branch and produce ramets up to 39 inches from the original plant.  This ends up producing an offspring plant that is genetically identical to the parent plant.  Rhizomes grow horizontally and display diageotropism (Capon, 2010).  The main advantage of vegetative reproduction is that only one parent is required which effectively limits the need for pollination or success of aerial parts.  These extended root systems also provide the plant stability in times of high water levels which occur especially in spring time.  

Conservation considerations

Aralica californica grows typically along stream banks and in riparian areas.  Because of their reliance on seepages, streams, and creeks, it is vulnerable to ditching, draining, and any other activity that alters hydrology (NatureServe, 2015).  

Due to the medicinal nature of the roots, particularly in their similarity to the highly sought after Ginseng, Aralia californicais vulnerable to overharvesting (NatureServe, 2015).  Considering the plants reliance on reproduction via rhizome, the harvesting of its roots for medicinal purposes or commercial distribution is particularly alarming.  Wild medicinal plants that are sought after for their roots are often the subject of over exploitation and population decline as a result (Roberson, 2008). Medicinal plants that are harvested for their roots require the complete removal of the plant while plants whose aerial portions are only used medicinally can often survive human harvest. According to my research, no population studies have been performed in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion to assess population health and potential impacts of wild harvesting on existing populations.  

Preparation Methods

Fresh Root – 1:3

Dried Root – 1:4

Decoction – Decoct for at least 30 min at a simmer