If you had to pick the meanest looking plant in our forest, you might say Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus). This shrub stands out because of its large maple-like leaves and thick spiny stems that can cause skin irritation. It’s petioles (leaf stalks) and leaf veins are also covered with a dense armour of needle-like spines. Other distinguishing features include its small, whitish flowers that are arranged in pyramidal clusters, which then turn into a showy bunch of bright red, shiny berries. Although this plant may look mean, looks can be deceiving.
Devil’s Club is often cited as the single most important medicinal and spiritual plant to the Indigenous Peoples that live within its range. Native to northwestern North America, it is common in moist, but well drained, forested ecosystems from coastal Alaska southward to central Oregon, and eastward to the Canadian Rockies. Different parts of this plant are used by over 38 linguistic groups from Alaska to B.C. and Oregon for over 34 categories of physical ailment as well as many spiritual applications. Studying the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples concerning plants and their uses is referred to as ethnonbotany.
Amongst all of the traditional medicinal uses of Devil’s Club, its most widespread use is as a treatment for external and internal infections, including tuberculosis. Devil’s club is also commonly used by many cultural groups to treat arthritis, rheumatism, respiratory ailments, and as a purgative (laxative) and emetic (causes vomiting). It is also used as an aid in childbirth, for internal haemorrhaging, as an analgesic (pain reliever), to treat stomach and digestive tract ailments, broken bones, fever, dandruff, lice, headaches, and as a treatment for cancer. Several parts of the shrub, including the inner bark, inner bark ash, whole stems, roots, berries, and leaves are used in a variety of ways when being prepared as a medicine.
Spiritual uses of this plant by Indigenous Peoples are related to it’s spiny exterior and include: purification and cleansing; protection against supernatural entities, epidemics and evil influences; acquisition of luck; to combat witchcraft; as a ceremonial and protective face paint; and in rituals by shamans and others to attain supernatural powers. Although here it is useful to talk about medicinal and spiritual uses separately, it is really only a simplification. Compared to typical western medicine, traditional practices take a more wholistic approach to health and healing and make less of a distinction between medicinal and spiritual treatments.
Another interesting thing about this plant is that it is a member of the ginseng family, a medicinal plant known for its properties as a tonic. Devil’s Club is now in limited use within contemporary herbal medicine but is sometimes misleadingly marketed under different names to stress its relation to ginseng (e.g. Alaskan ginseng), though there is little research to support this claim. Indeed, Devil’s Club’s emetic and purgative properties are usually what first time users highlight.
When a native wild plant becomes popular things can get complicated. In the case of this plant and many other culturally important plants, it is clear that commercial medicinal applications are based directly on traditional knowledge drawn mainly from ethnobotanical records. Because of this, consideration should be given to the intellectual property rights of its founding users and can come in the form of benefit sharing or compensation. There are also concerns that the commercial harvesting of Devil’s Club, especially the roots, will compromise its ability to persist in some localities within its range.
This is only a quick summary, remember that experimenting with any wild plants for food or medicine can be hazardous.
Written by: Kristina Swerhun