Identification & Description:
The botanical name for Devils club, Echinopanax horridum, literally means, prickly porcupine ginseng. What an accurate description! Devils Club does belong to the same family as Oriental ginseng, and like ginseng, it is used as a body balancing and system strengthening tea. Southeast Alaska Natives believe that regular use prevents cancer.
Devils Club is found as far north as south-central Alaska and as far south as coastal California. It grows best in moist areas and often forms dense thickets which are all but impassable without heavy clothing and gloves. It grows up to eight feet tall with large maple-like leaves. The stems and leaves are covered with large prickles. Clusters of bright red berries form at the tops of the stems in mid to late summer. These berries are not edible by humans but bears do eat them. Bears dont seem bothered by the plants thick armor of spines.
The roots and shoots of Devils club are edible. The shoots are only edible for the first few days after they appear in early spring, however. The time to harvest is when the spiny stalk first sprouts green growth. The leaf spines, though visible, are soft and pliable at this stage. Once they stiffen, however, the shoots should NOT be eaten. The leaf clusters may be nibbled raw, or added to omelets, casseroles, and soups like a spice. One or two is enough to add a unique tang to a common meal.
This member of the ginseng family gets its name from its thorny appearance. It is sometimes confused in the literature with its eastern cousin, Aralia spinosa, also known as devil’s club or devil’s walking stick. Oplopanax has a tradition of use among the Tlingit, Kwaikiutl, Skagit, and many other nations within its range. It has been used as a blood purifier, pain reliever, tonic, and digestive aid.
It is marketed for these same properties, as well as being used for controlling blood sugar levels. At present, it is not an extremely popular herb, but its popularity and knowledge of its use is growing. The plant is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental, but is mostly harvested commercially from the wild. It is found primarily in mature or old growth forests, and so is sensitive to habitat loss as these forests are disturbed or clearcut for timber.
Spring is also the prime season for harvesting the roots which are usually ground into a powder and made into a tea. Aleuts in Prince William sound drink the tea for cold and pain relief. Bark infusions have also been used for arthritis, black eyes, gall stones, stomach ulcers, and constipation. Pastes and poultices are used for relieving pain and swelling from insect bites and stings. Individuals with low blood sugar should be aware that devils club lowers blood sugar levels.
Devils club can be added to winter footbaths for cold feet. Like mustard and cayenne, it stimulates the skin and warms the feet. Ironically, this plant that many of us consider the work of the devil is regarded as a protective force in some areas. When placed above doorways and on fishing boats it is said to ward off evil. That may be so, but its still a good idea to carry gloves and tweezers when hiking in Devils club country.
Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus (Sm.) Torr. & A. Gray ex. Miq., Araliaceae) is probably the most important spiritual and medicinal plant to most indigenous peoples who live within its range. Different parts of this plant are used by over 38 linguistic groups for over 34 categories of physical ailment, as well as many spiritual applications. Devil’s club [syn. Echinopanax horridus (Sm.) Decne. & Planch, Fatsia horrida (Sm.) Benth. & Hook, Panax horridum Sm.; Riconophyllum horridum Pall.] is a common deciduous understory shrub occurring in moist, but well drained, forested ecosystems from coastal Alaska southward to central Oregon and eastward to the southwestern Yukon, the Canadian Rockies, northwestern Alberta, Montana, and Idaho. There are also several disjunct populations near northern Lake Superior in Michigan and Ontario. The stems of this shrub are upright to decumbent and can reach heights exceeding 6 meters (~20 feet). The leaves are large (up to 35 cm across [~14 inches]) and maple-shaped.
The stems, petioles, and leaf veins of devil’s club are covered with a dense armor of yellowish needle-like spines up to 2 cm (~0.5 inches) long, which can cause severe skin irritation. The flowers are small and whitish, borne in terminal pyramidal clusters, and ripen to shiny flattened, bright red berries. Devil’s club forms large sprawling clones that expand laterally through the layering of decumbent stems.
A member of the family Araliaceae (which also contains the ginsengs), devil’s club is related to a number of widely known medicinals including Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer), American ginseng (P. quinquefolius L.), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus Maxim., formerly called Siberian ginseng), and small spikenard (Aralia nudicaulis L., or sarsaparilla). Devil’s club is often cited as the most significant plant, both medicinally and spiritually, to the indigenous peoples within its range.2-5 The first ethnographic record of devil’s club use dates back to 1842, when Eduardo Blaschke, the chief physician for the Russian American Company, reported the use of devil’s club ash as a treatment for sores amongst the Tlingit.6 Subsequently, devil’s club has received widespread documentation for its medicinal, spiritual, and technological uses in ethnographies, ethnobotanies, medical journals, and historical records from within (as well as outside) its geographical range. In a 1982 review, Turner reported more than 30 categories of medicinal, spiritual, and technological uses by peoples of over 25 different indigenous linguistic groups of western North America.4 Phytochemical research has revealed that this plant has antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and antimycobacterial properties, and these are undoubtedly related to its widespread use in traditional medicine.7-11
Recent commercial use of devil’s club seems to have developed in response primarily to ethnographic records and the phytochemical research that these have inspired. In most cases the use of devil’s club in the herbal and nutraceutical industries parallels traditional uses described in ethnographic and ethnobotanical records. Recently, however, devil’s club’s botanical relationship to the well-known medicinal ginsengs (Panax ginseng, P. quinquefolius) has been used to increase its commercial appeal. Thus, it is sometimes marketed under the misleading, and now illegal in the United States, common names of “Alaskan ginseng,” “wild armored Alaskan ginseng,”12 and “Pacific ginseng.”13 Such marketing relies on purported phytochemical similarities between devil’s club and Panax spp. Although largely unsubstantiated, presumably such claims are based on the speculation that plants of the family Araliaceae may share similar chemical constituents, a presumption that is not supported by current phytochemical research.
The prospect of increasing demand in the market has the potential to increase the unregulated harvest of devil’s club. This is of concern because this shrub is sensitive to over-harvesting.14 Since devil’s club is extremely important culturally, commercialization also raises concerns about the lack of recognition of and compensation for, the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples from Alaska to British Columbia and Oregon.
The purpose of this paper is to clarify devil’s club’s medicinal properties by summarizing reported traditional medicinal applications, examining contemporary use by indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, and reviewing recent phytochemical research. Intellectual property rights and cultural and conservation issues associated with the commercialization of this plant are also discussed.
Moist woods, especially near streams, seepage sites, and in avalanche tracks; low to middle elevations
Mid to late summer
Alaska to Southwest Oregon and east to Western Montana and Northern Idaho; also around the Great Lakes