Pacific sanicle

Sanicula crassicaulis

single branch of pacific sanicle growing onto trail

Pacific sanicle (Sanicula crassicaulis) is a native perennial related to carrots and celery. It is an inconspicuous plant that might at first glance be mistaken for a small mustard. Tiny yellow flowers are born in small, spherical clusters at the ends of long, branching stems. Close examination shows an unusual flower structure, with the tips of the petals rolled inward – like a little girl with her hair in curlers. Seeds are armed with stout prickles that are hooked at the ends, perfect for hitching a ride on animal fur – or socks.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about Pacific sanicle, is its absence from the botanical and ethnobotanical (and even medical) literature. It has not been the subject of scientific studies and its most useful indigenous application seems to have been as a good-luck charm for gambling.

Other Common Names:

Gamble weed, Pacific snakeroot, Pacific black snakeroot

Description 2,4,59,261

Pacific sanicle is a biennial or short-lived perennial, spreading or erect usually to less than three feet (1m) high. It is not a conspicuous plant. A clump of basal leaves and a single ridged, sparsely-leafed stem develop from a taproot. The basal leaves are rounded and shallowly to deeply palmately lobed, with three to five lobes and irregular, sharply-toothed margins; petioles are distinctly longer than the leaf and may be winged at the base. Younger stem leaves and petioles become progressively smaller and leaves are often more deeply lobed.

Flower clusters are sparse compound umbels. The basic unit of the cluster is a small, dense, spherical umbel (umbellet) less than 1/2 inch (2.5 cm) across, composed of a few to about 20 yellow flowers. About half of the flowers are bisexual, the rest male but the two types are difficult to distinguish without magnification. Flowers are radially symmetrical or approximately so, with five petals. Petals are heart-shaped but the tips curl inward disguising the basic shape. There are five pale yellow stamens that curl inward before maturity and extend well beyond the petals when mature. Bisexual flowers have one pistil, which is not developed in male flowers. The ovary is inferior and the two pale yellow styles extend slightly from the flower throat, diverging in a “V” shape. Pacific sanicle blooms March through April.1

The fruit consists of two dry, adjacent one-seeded halves, covered on the outer sides with sharp, hooked prickles.

looking down onto Pacific sanicle with yellow blossoms
an umbellet with styles visible
an umbellet of small prickly green fruit

Distribution 7,59,89

Pacific sanicle is a widespread native plant of the west coast of North America, from western British Columbia into northern Baja California. In California it is found along the coast and in the foothills and lower mountains most commonly below 3300 feet (1150m), and in a variety of vegetation types.

In the Reserve, Pacific sanicle can be found in East Basin along the trail between Santa Carina and Santa Helena where it seems to prefer shaded areas at the edge of the chaparral, but It may well be found elsewhere.

Classification 2,44,59,143

Pacific sanicle is a dicot angiosperm in the carrot family (or parsley family, Apiaceae). Members of this family are mostly herbs and are characterized by having flowers in compound umbels in which the peduncles of primary umbels also radiate from one point, forming a larger umbel. The term “umbel” comes from the Latin for sunshade, referring to an umbel’s resemblance to an umbrella. Previously, this family was called Umbelliferae. Members of this family often have a thick taproot, leaves that are divided or dissected, with petioles that wrap part way around the stem and a two-seeded dry fruit.

The carrot family includes important foods such as celery, carrots, and parsnips, and flavorful herbs such as parsley, cumin, coriander, dill, and caraway. The same family includes two extremely toxic plants: water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). The latter, is a non-native plant that has become established in the Reserve.48 It is thought to be the plant that killed Socrates.56

Three other native members of the carrot family have been reported from the Reserve:48 shiny lomatium (or biscuit root, Lomatium lucidum), rattlesnake weed (Daucus pusillus) and California hedge-parsley (Yabea microcarpa).

Pacific sanicle is a highly variable species. In the past it been split into four separate varieties that are no longer recognized.2,7

Alternate Scientific Names:

Sanicula menziesii

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
an umbel of umbellets with yellow blossoms
a winged petiole base below spikes green leaves
an umbellet of prickly fruit on a single branch


To date, we have found no reports of scientific studies specifically mentioning Pacific sanicle.

a yellow umbellet with immature anthers coiled inward and mature anthers exerted
Pacific senile growing on trail side
a five lobed green palmate leaf

Human Uses

We can find no records that the local Kumeyaay and Luisaño tribes used Pacific sanicle, and we have found very few uses by native Americans elsewhere. In northern California, the Miwok tribes used a poultice of the leaves for snakebites and other wounds, while tribes in the Mendocino region used Pacific sanicle to bring good luck in gambling.282

Other sources are cautiously ambiguous. One suggests that herbage of some species of sanicle including our species S. crassicaulis, “probably” contain alkaloids and “should be considered” inedible.23 Another states that “some species” of Sanicula are “said to be” poisonous.310

looking into yellow Pacific sanicle flowers
an umbellet with styles visible under microscope
two umbellets of yellow flowers and one of fruit

Interesting Facts

The genus name Sanicula, as well as the common name, comes from the Latin word sanare, which means “to heal.” 21 Curious, given the apparent lack of medicinal uses.

leafy green Pacific sanicle
green underside of an umbellet with leafy bracts
cluster of Pacific sanicles

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