Spikenard Root


I have not come across very much historical literature that specifically elaborates on California spikenard. If mentioned at all, it is often noted as simply being used the same as Aralia racemosa. Nor have I found a single scientific study that describes the use of Aralia californica. I have not reviewed sources written by anthropologists about the use of this plant by indigenous peoples of California, as I wish only to source those with personal experience with the plant, and to allow indigenous people to speak for themselves. I do reference one excellent book written by the late Karuk/Shasta/Abenaki herbalist Josephine Peters.

All parts of the plant can be employed for medicine, including the leaves, rhizomes, roots, and fruit.


Leaves can be lightly harvested in early to mid-summer when they are at their peak of vitality. Most commonly prepared as a tea, California spikenard leaves offer a mild adaptogenic effect for those experiencing depletion or anxiety due to chronic stress (Kloos, 2017). Their gentle lung tonifying properties soothe the airways.


The rhizomes exude a milky oleoresin that is especially abundant when harvested in winter. Michael Moore states that “spring roots make a better cough syrup and expectorant, and fall roots seem to have better tonic effects” (Moore 2001, p 119). A member of the ginseng family, it may have some constituents in common with its better known cousins in the Panax genus.

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California spikenard root is especially known as an excellent lung tonic, helpful for both acute and chronic lung conditions. This is a plant I’ve seen work miracles – in elders with mild emphysema/COPD in it has reduced lung spasms and improved respiration, while in current smokers and in those with sensitive lungs who fall prey to bronchitis each winter it has been just the trick to break the cycle of illness.

California spikenard is an aromatic expectorant; the resins gently stimulate the lungs, increasing circulation and nutrient flow to the tissue and improving removal of waste products. It can restore secretions in dry coughs and also thin and liquefy the thick stagnant mucus characteristic of moist lung problems (Sinadinos, 2008; Moore, 2001). It has antimicrobial, antitussive, and demulcent effects especially supportive for those with acute lower respiratory infections. Interestingly, Josephine Peters, , a native Karuk/Shasta/Abenaki herbalist from the Klamath River region of Northern California, describes its benefits for sinus troubles and sore throat, but did not indicate use for lung conditions (Peters & Ortiz, 2010). The restorative, anti-inflammatory, and bronchodilation effects make it a key remedy for those with asthma or COPD(Kloos, 2017; Sinadinos, 2008; Moore, 2001). It is a potent preventative tonic for those prone to respiratory infections when consumed for a few months before the cold and wet season (Sinadinos, 2008). It is also a great help for the clean-up phase after infection (Sinadinos, 2008).

Some of these long term benefits are related to its alternative and adaptogenic qualities (Kloos, 2017; Moore, 2001). California spikenard can bring great benefit to those who are exhausted and frayed at the edges, especially if their lungs are the weakest link under chronic stress.

Josephine Peters wrote in her excellent book After the First Full Moon in April that a poultice of California spikenard root applied on the back of her head and neck and down along her spine was critical for helping her recover quickly from a stroke when she was in her 30s. She also used the poultice topically to draw blood from bruises and black eyes, and to relieve swelling from sore or arthritic joints (Peters & Ortiz, 2010).

California spikenard root is also known to gently stimulate uterine contractions that help to bring on childbirth. It can encouraged menses delayed by stress or exhaustion, and can also benefit excessive menstruation (Sinadinos 2008; Peters & Ortiz, 2010). Consume the hot tea or tincture in hot water to stimulate the uterus (Sinadinos 2008).


The berries are harvested in late summer and early fall when purple-black and ripe. Prized for their support for those experiencing seasonal depression, their uplifting effect can also benefit those prone to hormonal mood swings or postpartum depression. (Kloos, 2017; Sinadinos 2008). They are often utilized as a non-stimulating adaptogen helpful for depletion and fatigue in younger folks (Sinadinos, 2008). Some sources mention it as a soothing remedy for sore throat, though I found it to be incredibly acrid (Kloos, 2017).