A Healing Giant among Redwoods

Elk Clover. Photo by Keir Morse
Elk Clover. Photo by Keir Morse

Meet a fascinating plant of redwood country: elk clover, also known as California spikenard (Aralia californica), is the only member of the ginseng family that is native to California.  It’s a perennial deciduous plant (meaning it sheds its leaves in the fall),  and it has really large leaves about the size of a person’s hand.

Although it can grow up to about 9 feet tall, its stem never becomes woody like a tree or shrub. It’s the largest plant of its kind in the redwood forest. You can find it in moist, shady canyons and areas close to water sources. Elk clovers grow in abundance near one of our fern study sites in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, under the shade of the redwoods.

Its flowers and berries grow in a shape known as an “umbel,” with each flower growing on its own evenly spaced stalk around a central point, like the ribs of an umbrella around its handle.

The Pomo Indians have used this plant to make a healing drink, and throughout history this plant and others in its genus have been known for their medicinal qualities.

Next time you’re out in the redwood forest, see if you can spot elk clover!

Learn more about elk clover from the USDA and Calflora.

About the author

Emily Burns, the League’s former Director of Science, led the research program that includes the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative. She holds a PhD in Integrative Biology on the impacts of fog on coast redwood forest flora from the University of California, Berkeley.

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One Response to “A Healing Giant among Redwoods”

  1. David H Gleit

    I discovered this species yesterday while hiking near Sanborn Creek in Sanborn County Park. It was growing quite abundantly in exactly the kind of environment you describe- a moist, shady canyon. Thanks for your informative (and enthusiastic) post!


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