Devil’s Club
Oplopanax horridum 

Species paper by Lisa Shock 


Photo by Wendy Aeschliman
 

Also called Devil’s walking stick and for good reason...the plant is covered with sharp spiny thorns.  Also called Echinopanax horridum.  It is in the Araliaceae (or Aralia) family and very closely related to Ginsing.  Panax is derived from the Greek Panakos (a panacea) in reference to the vast medicinal uses.  Echino refers to the spiny thorns and horrid(um) is self evident.  Other names for it are: Aralia spinosa, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Acanthopanax  & Siberian ginseng.  

 
I have only seen it near running water, or very damp places.  Its “maple shaped” leaves resemble Thimbleberry but up close the spines make identification simple.  It is found in Alaska, Canada, Oregon, Washington & Idaho, sometimes forming vast thickets with stems over 10 feet tall.  It spreads mostly by the stems falling to the ground and taking root.  In the spring it has a white flower cluster that matures into a lovely red berry cluster.  The seeds are difficult to germinate and may take 2 years to sprout. It requires cool moist soil and prefers shade.  It is very hardy to -15C but the leaves are deciduous so it is just a spiny spike in the winter.  It transplants easily and tolerates pruning. It would make a very thorny living fence that would keep people & critters at bay.  Root cuttings, and suckers in the dormant season would be the easiest way to propagate it.   


Look at the size of the leaves!!  
Photo by Margareta Larson

 
Medicinal and other uses:

The berries are poisonous but have been used to kill lice by mashing them up and applying the paste to the hair.  This also treats dandruff and makes the hair shiny.

The stems and roots are the primary medicinal part and both can be used but the roots are more concentrated and easier to use, since the roots don’t have the spines and are easier to peel.  The dried bark can be brewed into a tea or made into a tincture. It is analgesic, antirheumatic, cathartic, emmenagogue, galactogogue, hypoglycaemic, alterative, adaptogen, ophthalmic, and tonic.  The active constituents may be saponins and substances with insulin like activity but research is still ongoing to identify these medicinal components.  It has been called the most valuable medicinal plant native to the Pacific Northwest .  Native Americans have used it to treat acute & chronic disorders, as well as a protective “charm”.  Weston Price in “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” writes that an Indian admitted into Prince Rupert , BC hospital for an operation showed signs of diabetes but had kept himself healthy for several years just by drinking devil’s club tea.  Laboratory tests of the extract on rabbits showed the blood sugar levels were reduced without any toxic side effects.  Chinese medicine energetics calls it acrid, bitter, and cool, affecting the spleen and lung meridians as a yin tonic or alterative for cooling the blood.  Laboratory research has found the extract to be effective at inhibiting a respiratory syncytial virus, and significant anti-Candida (yeast) activity, as well as antibacterial and antimycobacterial activity, with ability to kill Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Mycobacterium avium.  This explains the common use of the tea to treat coughs, colds, and respiratory ailments as well as stomach and intestinal problems.  For rheumatism the tea was drunk and also applied to the painful joints.  A poultice of the root bark was applied to a nursing mother’s breasts to stop excessive flow (at weaning?).  An eyewash of the tea was used to treat cataracts.  Treatment of diabetes, especially adult onset insulin resistant diabetes is just incredible, reportedly reducing the craving for sugar as well as the elevated blood glucose levels.  Some call it a blood and liver tonic.  In large doses it is emetic (causes vomiting) and purgative.  It has also been used in herbal steam baths for treating general body pain. The burnt stems mixed with oil make a salve for swellings. The root bark boiled in oil and used to treat psoriaisis worked better than hydrocortisone in one study. Like all the ginsengs it is an adaptogen, balancing the stress response and stabilizing the body. Tlingit Shamans undergo solitary initiations in the wilderness fasting and drinking Devil’s club tea. Haida hunters also use the tea to bathe and induce vomiting for a traditional cleansing.  The Lummi burn sticks of Devil’s club and mix the ashes with grease (today they use Vaseline) to make a reddish brown face paint.  The Klallam peel a stick and cut it into small pieces which are fastened to bass lines, underwater it releases itself and spins to the surface working like a lure the fish follows.  The Cowliz dry the bark, powder it for use as perfume or baby talc.  The Skagit drink the tea after childbirth to restore normal reproductive functions. 

 

For centuries native people have known it harbors healing and spiritual powers; they believe those thorns are there for a reason: to protect the medicine inside. For more information see: Medicinal plants of the Pacific West by Moore, or Planetary Herbology by Tierra.

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