By Ralph Radford
I once had the chance to go hiking in the Panama jungle. The weather was hot and humid, with 100 or more deadly snakes sliding around; and many of the plants had spikes or thorns on them to protect themselves against animals.
Luckily, hikers in the Pacific Northwest don’t have to worry about every plant having spikes on them--except for devil’s club. With a name like that, you know that you’re not in for a good time if you grab this plant. It has happened to me, and it took weeks to remove the sliver-size needles deeply embedded in my hand by carefully extracting them with an X-ACTO knife.
But once you have come to respect the devil’s club, it becomes a plant of beauty, with its huge, 6- to15-inch diameter maple-like leaves, cane-like stems and those long, stiff yellow thorns. In fall, its leaves turn a golden yellow, then sheds its leaves for the winter.
Devil’s club is a good indicator plant that signals a wet, boggy place, or a swampy area with lots of shade. Its giant leaves are adaptation to the dim light in these shady, boggy areas. The giant leaves give the plant away in the spring and summer months, but after the leaves fall in the winter, the plant can be difficult to see, blending in with salmonberry brush. Once buried in the snow, an unwarily hiker may step on the Devil’s club, springing it loose from the snow and clobbering the trekker. Many have met these barbed thorns, and there is a common myth that the thorns are poisoned. Luckily you’ll just get a badge of courage and curses from being injected with a mild, irritating toxin.
Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum) has an unusual scientific name. Oplo implies weaponry, while panax implies cure. The “cure” in this plant comes from being part of the ginseng family. The plant was used as a cure by Native Americans to alleviate colds, ailments and rheumatism. Devil’s club was also used for face painting, tattoo inks and a deodorant.
This plant is still being used as a cure, according to Doctor Jana Nalbandian, a naturalist at Bastyr University. The root of the devil’s club is used to help the body adapt to stressful situations or “adrenal burnout” from mental, nervous, emotional and physical exhaustion.
According to Doctor Nalbandian, the root of the devil’s club can be used as an herb that lends a sense of invigoration and strength on a physical and spiritual level.
To find this plant, look in boggy areas with lots of shade. Leaf stalks and undersides of main veins are spiny, with stems three to 12 feet tall. The plant has bright red berries in terminal clusters and tiny, greenish white flowers in the summer months.
Photo by Ralph Radford.
Want to write an entry for WTA's Nature on Trail online field guide?
E-mail us here.