“Devil’s club” sounds like it should be the title of the latest teen thriller. In reality it is an herb native to BC that has a long list of health credentials.
Devil’s club can be identified by its large maple-like leaves and thick spiny stems, which grow from 4 to 10 feet long. Long, yellowish spines bristle from the stems, and thin thorns (say that five times fast!) project from the underside. Clusters of white flowers appear in June, making way for pyramids of bright red berries in August. It grows on Vancouver Island and through the coastal forests of BC, stretching down into Oregon. The herb earns its “devilish” name from its growth patterns, which tend to trip unwary hikers so that the upright portions of the plant lacerate the skin. The thorns are toxic, so scratches soon become swollen and very painful. You can see why the names “angelic plant” or “innocent bystander bush” were rejected.
The tender green shoots that appear in the spring can actually be eaten. These are alright to consume raw or can be added into soups and casseroles. Once the spines stiffen though, eating them is not recommended, for pretty obvious reasons.
This plant has a medicinal history among some First Nations groups that is truly extensive. According to the American Botanical Council, “In a 1982 review, (Nancy) 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.”
Some of the main uses include asthma, eczema, pain relief and heart health, though there are many more spiritual uses mentioned as well. According to one source; the best way to use this herb is to purge with an enema and fruit fast, then start with ½ cup per day, and increase gradually to 4 or 5 cups.
Today it is mostly available in diabetes formulas for its ability to balance glycemic levels, no enemas or fasting required! It reduces sugar cravings for people who are not diabetic too. In traditional medicine this herb would be chewed when someone was on a fast to inhibit appetite and assist with opening the eyes in a more mystical way.
An ointment can be made, using the inner root bark, to help with arthritis, inflammation, pain and swelling. Skin conditions can be helped by making a poultice with the herb. Indications include eczema, bites, stings and wounds, including the nasty scratches that you get from the plant itself.
Devil’s club is related to the ginseng family and is sometimes marketed as “Alaskan ginseng” or “Pacific ginseng” by those trying to capitalize on the popularity of ginseng North America. While the plants do share some of the same characteristics, they do not have the same biochemical constituents. Translation: they may both be good for pain, but not for the same reasons.
Devil’s club is sensitive to overharvesting and it is important to remember that, for many people, this is a sacred plant. It is there for us to use, but the privilege should not be taken advantage of. We probably don’t have to worry about a sudden shortage though. Many companies are now cultivating their own crop for use in herbal formulas. As for the plant itself, as we all know, it has a few ways of defending itself.