Elk clover (Aralia californica) is not a clover, but is a member of the ginseng family. A giant plant growing up to ten feet in height, one might think it is a shrub. But it is not. The stems are large and fleshy, not woody like shrubs.
A perennial native of California and Oregon, elk clover is also commonly called California spikenard or California aralia. Common in shaded areas along streams, elk clover is deciduous (loses its leaves in the winter).
The huge pinnate (compound leaf with leaflets on wither side of a central axis) leaves of elk clover are between one and three feet in length. The greenish-white flowers are in ball-like umbels (flower stalks arise from a common point) on branching clusters at the ends of the stems. The flower matures into a dark purple or black fruit containing 3 – 5 seeds, which birds love. At about the time the berries form and ripen the elk clover stems turn red. Beautiful!
The roots of elk clover have traditionally been used by Native Americans as a cough suppressant and anti-inflammatory. Since elk clover is a member of the ginseng family, many herbalists substitute it for American ginseng which has a reputation as a “mind enhancer”. Although elk clover does share some pharmacological and therapeutic similarities with American ginseng, it is not the same plant and should not be substituted. I personally only enjoy elk clover for the impressive and beautiful wildflower that it is.
For such a giant plant that can form dense stands, elk clover is often not included in general wildflower identification guides. I am not certain why this prejudice. It is so distinctive and easy to learn that, in my opinion, regional beginners guides should include it more regularly.
These photographs were taken along the North Umpqua Trail (Oregon) upstream from the Wright Bridge.