Plant of the Week
Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridus (sm.) Miq.)
By Tom Heutte, Chippewa National Forest
I am making my away through the tangled mossy dripping forest somewhere in the Alexander Archipelago of southeastern Alaska. It’s been raining steadily all day; it has been raining steadily all week. In fact, it has been raining steadily since sometime during the Pleistocene. On my quest for rare plants of the Tongass National Forest I find myself side hilling a steep slope. The temperature is only 50 degrees but I am sweating in my raingear. My footing is precarious on the rocky hillside, a boulder field overgrown with huge spruce trees; years of accumulated fallen limbs and the thick growth of shrubs make it difficult to even see where I place my feet on the ground. I slip and start sliding down the hillside aided by my slick wet raingear. I reach out and grab the nearest handhold to arrest my fall. The pain stabs into my hand. I have saved myself by grabbing hold of a stem of, Oplopanax horridus, the devil's club. My good friend known to me by its USDA name code “OPHO” has saved me, but will be reminding me of the favor it has done me as I remove the numerous prickly spines from my hands for days to come.
A term of botanical literature from the glossary: “armed” meaning protected with spines, prickles, or stinging hairs. Devil's club is armed to the teeth. The spines of devil's club coat every exposed surface of the plant except for the roots and berries. It is notable in that even the leaves are covered with numerous spines, and on the stem, the spines are so densely crowned, they seem to compete for space with each other.
Devil's club can be found in well-drained forests from coastal Alaska southward and eastward to California, the Northern Rockies, with a disjunct population near northern Lake Superior.
Bears delight in eating large quantities of the abundant berries produced by devil’s club in the mid-summer months. They spread the seed in their droppings, helping the forest recover from natural and human disturbance, including landslides, blowdowns, and logging.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this plant in traditional and contemporary Native American/First Nations cultures such as the Tlingit, Haida, Salish, Tsimshian, Hesquiat, and Nuxalt throughout this plant’s native range in the Pacific Northwest. It has been employed for a staggeringly broad variety of uses, ranging from fishhooks and lures to using its charcoal as a base for tattoo ink. The variety of traditional medicines made from this cousin of Panax (ginseng) is staggering as well, having been used for everything from arthritis and tuberculosis to deodorant and to treat lice. More skookum (powerful) applications included purification and cleansing, combating witchcraft and attainment of supernatural powers. Western herbalists and mainstream pharmaceutical researchers have taken an interest in devil's club potential for among other things, regulation of blood sugar for the treatment of diabetes.
If you encounter this plant, be prepared, especially when bushwhacking. Good canvas jeans and a stout shirt or raingear and leather gloves allow you to walk through devil's club relatively unscathed. Make sure you take a deep breath of its intoxicating ginseng scent. Make friends with this plant as I have and you will delight in it rather than fearing it.
For More Information: PLANTS Profile - Oplopanax horridus, devil's club