(Papa) Bear Medicine: Spikenard Syrup

(Papa) Bear Medicine: Spikenard Syrup

Spikenard is pungent, sweet, warm, stimulating, and oily. The oily brown root has a furry tuft where the stem arises from the ground--the signature of a "bear medicine".[1]

I had a hacking cough before going to sleep last night, and our young son Beren, sleeping, answered with a "sympathy cough" right after I turned off the lights.

Uh oh, Rachel and I nodded to each other in the dark. Memories of last year's extended infant croup and lots of crying-baby-woken-up-by-coughs flashed up.

This morning, I decided to make an herbal remedy I've been waiting years to prepare: Spikenard syrup.

Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) is an uncommon forest plant in these parts, a great big shaggy beast of an herb, looking every bit as large as a shrub. Judging by aerial parts alone--sprawling compound leaves and great big racemes of white flowers then red berries--it could be one of the largest herbaceous plants in the eastern forest.

It comes from a lineage of highly regarded medicinal herbs, sharing the family Araliaceae with American ginseng among others.

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I've read a few second-hand stories about Bear Medicines. As the retellings go, Native Americans in some parts learned the medicinal uses of various plant species by observing the behavior of bears. I haven't yet found the legends themselves, but I like Matthew Wood's general account of Bear Medicines, for the way it blurs the lines between nature observation and spiritual awareness and credits both:

The bear is a particularly important animal for the native herbalist. This omnivorous animal digs up roots, tears off barks, and collects berries with its claws. By watching the bear, the Indian people learned about plants for medicine and food... Very often, this knowledge is derived directly from watching these animals in the wild, or in dreamtime, for many generations.[3]

Wood goes on to list the many herbs in the modern herbal pharmacopoeia that are utilized as roots and barks and are primarily Native American in origin (black cohosh, echinacea, goldenseal, bloodroot, prickly ash, etc.), in contrast to the preponderance of flowers and other aerial parts used in the European herbal tradition (calendula, vervain, lady's mantle, chamomile, and so on).

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Perhaps I have an affinity for Bear Medicine; in my herbal preparations I'm most drawn to tincturing roots, especially aromatic/spicy/warming forest plants. Spikenard fits all of those adjectives, and is known as a cough remedy and an adaptogen, as well as an ingredient in old-time root beer recipes. A scan of Daniel Moerman's encyclopedic Native American Medicinal Plants reveals about 70 recorded uses for the plant among different Native tribes, suggesting both ubiquity of use and effectiveness as a remedy.

Given the scarcity of Spikenard in our area, I've been reluctant to dig up the roots of any wild plants. Instead, I've waited to propagate and grow out baby spikenards, and only now do I have access to mature spikenard plants in our herbal garden.

We collect our spikenard seed from an acquaintance's roadside property along a deeply cut tributary creek of the Delaware River. The narrow road has a sheer drop down to the creek on one side, and a number of shale bluffs on the other, and this vertical topography has spared some very remarkable plant communities from both overabundant white-tailed deer and overzealous township mowing crews.

The bluff shales seem to be calcareous, with columbine in nooks and maidenhair spleenwort in shaded crannies. There's a mountain affinity to some of the plants, with swaths of hemlock, rhododendron and purple-flowering raspberry alternating with rich cove/riparian species such as wild ginger, Dutchman's breeches, and Virginia waterleaf.

The Spikenards grow in cool, moist soil near the bases of the low bluffs and steep roadcuts, often in nearly full sun by virtue of the opened canopy over the road and creek. Every year they flower abundantly and bear hundreds of small berries. These are consumed and dispersed by a number of frugivorous bird species and small mammals. They're edible to humans as well, and a few of my more obsessive wild edible enthusiast friends have tried them, but... I guess I was waiting to see how they fared before trying them myself. They did fine, and even had positive things to say about the flavor, so... maybe next year.  

The edible uses that intrigue me most (aside from root beer, a future blog entry for sure) are the use of Spikenard's young shoots as a vegetable and its spicy roots as a potherb in Native American stews.

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The freshly dug roots

To prepare my spikenard syrup, I walk out the front door with spade in hand, looking for the dormant stem of a two-year old spikenard which had fruited abundantly in our front yard.

I dig down, making a loose circle around the tan stem and next year's perennating buds. I pop the crown of the plant out of the soil and am amazed by the octopus form of its thick, ropey roots.

Indoors, I take clippers to the roots. They are firm but soft and segments easily sever and drop into a small bowl. As I scrub the roots, I'm surprised at how sticky my hands get, as though covered in pinesap.

Weighing the macerated roots

The roots have a cutting aroma, a bit spicy, a bit piney, reminding me most of all of the smell of cut tuliptree roots, though I have no idea if there is any commonality in their constituents. As an aside, Matthew Wood describes tuliptree bark as "sweet, acrid, and aromatic" [4], and that's pretty much how I'd describe the taste of the spikenard roots, which I tasted raw (texture like a pithy carrot, not unlike feral evening primrose), and then after simmering(the root became sweeter, but retained an spicy/acrid aftertaste; the texture was like sweet potato flesh, very soft and pleasing).

I simmered the roots in water for twenty minutes, strained out the roots, and mixed the decoction with twice its volume in honey. The resulting syrup tastes like flower nectar, light and sweet and faintly aromatic.

Adding honey to the decoction

I took some for my cough; it relieved the barking-hacking aspect, but I'm still coughing from excess mucous production when the wood stove makes the house too dry. I think I'd need to take something else to get rid of the excess catarrh, but since the cough is no longer violent, I think I'll just let it work itself out.

Beren took a small taste of the syrup and demanded more, whereupon I put away the jar. He interpreted it, I guess, as a delicious sugar-sweet treat. Courtesy of Papa Bear.

Sampling the syrup-yum!

The finished product. 

I returned the crown and remaining roots of the plant to where I had dug it, added some fresh compost, and mulched with oak leaves.


Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2009


This claim, which I've read elsewhere as well, is immediately confounded when one considers the massive colonies of shorter-statured by highly rhizomatous species such as Mayapple. But for sheer size of the "individual", Spikenard may well be largest.


Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. North Atlantic Books, 1997


Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2009