Devil’s Club

Oplopanaxhorridum – Devil’s Club


Devil’s ClubOplopanaxhorridum (a.k.a. Echinopanax horridum)

Oplopanax = L. “prickly porcupine-ginseng”;

Identification: This strongly aromatic shrub has a very coarse nature, being densely covered with spines and prickles. Standing 1 – 3 m (occasionally as high as 5 m), it has alternate leaves on long petioles, 5 – 7 lobed, palmate and 10 – 30 cm wide, with prickly ribs on the underside. The flowers are borne on umbels in large terminal clusters, 10 – 30 cm long, with greenish petals, 2 styles; fruits brightly scarlet, 4 – 5 mm long, 2 seeded.

Distribution & Habitat: Found from Alaska to Oregon and as far east as Lake Superior in moist rich soil, along stream banks, often in thick wooded areas such as cedar forest. It usually grows in dense thickets.

Preparation & Uses: When the young spring shoot first appears in the early spring (only for a few days) the green tender stalks can be eaten. The leaf clusters can be eaten raw or as Schofield suggests added to omelettes, casseroles or soups. As soon as the leaf spines stiffen, they are not edible.

Medicinally this plant has a multitude of uses. It belongs in the same family as ginseng. It is listed as being hypoglycemic, cathartic, emetic (in large doses), stomachic, analgesic and diaphoretic. Used heavily by West coast Indians for both medicinal and “strong magical powers“, it was widely traded. One of the most famous applications amongst West coast Indians was for adult onset diabetes. It is reportedly capable of reducing the need for (and in some cases completely eliminate) injected insulin. The inner bark is boiled as a decoction. In our clinic we use a tincture of inner bark of the roots. The hypoglycemic effect was verified in 1938 in medical studies, after Native people were found using it, but little subsequent attention has been paid to Devil s Club.

It has been suggested that hypoglycemics should not take this herb. Yet I’ve met hypoglycemic people who, ignorant of this fact, say it helps them get rid of “… the late afternoon hangover from reality”. Modern practitioners have also employed this herb to curb sugar cravings. Many native groups used a root bark decoction, or simply chewed it. During fasts, it was felt to aid a person in curbing appetite and even to assist with visions.

Being a member of the ginseng family, some myths about this herb (deserved or not) claim it is a great body-balancer and strengthener. The southeast Alaskan Indians used the decoction to cure and prevent cancer. Both internally and externally the bark has been used for arthritis. Infusion, decoction, chewing the bark or simply laying the bark on the sore area were the application methods. As an analgesic, the tea was used by some and others burned the bark to a white ash and applied it topically both to wounds and to stop pain. For arthritis and rheumatism, sometimes the whole body was soaked in the tea (while the patient also drank it).

An ointment made of the root bark has been used for treatment of sore and stiff joints, swelling, as a liniment and for massage oils. A decoction was used as the water for sweat lodges or steams to treat rheumaism, digestive complaints and pneumonia. Both paste and poultices have been used to treat wounds, bites, stings and skin problems, including the festered sore that can be caused by this plant s prickles. Some have used a powdered root bark as a foot bath after long hikes.

Indigestion, constipation and general stomach complaints were treated with a decoction of the bark by Coast Indians. The Thompson Indians used its tonic, laxative and blood cleansing abilities as a spring tonic. In Alaska, the Tlingit and Haida tribes were reported to use a bark infusion for “general strength, colds, chest pain after colds, arthritis, black eyes, gall stones, stomach ulcers, and constipation”. For chest complaints it was used for everything from colds, pneumonia, hoarse throats and even tuberculosis. A mixture of Devil s Club root, Labrador tea and clover roots, was used by native peoples during epidemics to ward off illness. It was also used in sweats and burned to ward off evil spirits associated with disease. It was used as protection from evil spirits — hung over doorways, on fishing boats or worn as amulets by shamans.

For toothaches, the root can be chewed or applied as a poultice to painful areas. It was sometimes chewed and spit on a wound as an emergency analgesic. Large amounts are said to cause a “drunkenness”, maybe one of the reasons it has been used for vision seeking.

Several tribes used this herb for childbirth. The Bella Coola used it as a purgative before and after childbirth. The Skagit decocted it, with other herbs, after childbirth to establish regular menstrual flow. The Shuswap drank the decoction for several days after childbirth. The dethorned bark was laid on Skagit women to reduce milk flow when it was too heavy. The dried powdered bark was pulverized by the Cowlitz Indians and used as a perfumed talc for babies. This same mixture has been used as a deodorant by other groups.

The berries were used as a hair tonic, especially to kill lice and as a treatment for dandruff in small children.

The Lummi Indians of Washington State burnt the “sticks” and mixed the ash with grease to make a reddish – brown face paint.

Caution: The prickles produce a festering wound that can be treated by a poultice of the root bark but it is best to use extreme caution when hiking near the plant. The best time to harvest is in spring. It is felt that it is strongest then. One article suggests that if the root is harvested after a killing frost in the fall the sap contains some poisonous substances.