By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter
Many years ago while hiking on Afognak Island, I first encountered an interesting plant that I came to know as devil’s club. Its huge leaves dominated the vegetation underneath the taller spruce trees. The leaf shape was reminiscent of a gigantic maple leaf with a verdant green color. To top off the bright green, there was an attractive mass of red berries on top of the stems, which gave holiday flair. The woods that day showed a contrasting combination of green shades with red accents.
This was an image I had seen in a painting by artist Byron Birdsall. As fall approaches, the leaves change into a bright yellow shade and the devil’s club’s heavy leaf veins stand out clearly. Then these colorful plants seem to disappear after the first heavy frost. The leaves drop off and only the stubby, tan-colored stems remain.
The scientific name of devil’s club is Oplopanax horridus and the species name gives warning of bad things. The view that day on Afognak Island from several feet away was the best one to have, since there were hundreds of needle-sharp spines completely covering every stem. The beautiful leaves even have stiff, half-inch spines underneath that could impale the unwary. Deer and moose are known to avoid nibbling on the leaves and the many spines, and that’s thought to be the reason. Considering the number of spines I acquired on the front of my legs by walking through the plants that day, this plant was surely the work of the devil. Devil’s club has come by its name honestly.
These plants are well known in Alaska and can be found as far south as Washington, Oregon and even parts of California. Interestingly, they can also be found in some isolated spots as far east as Ontario and Michigan. Devil’s club seems to like moist, rich soils and does well under a mature forest canopy. It is often found along small streams, and the large leaves are known to provide protective shade for animals within the streams.
The genus name of devil’s club includes the name “panax,” which indicates this plant is related to the ginseng family of plants. Ginseng is a staple in Asian and many home-brewed medications. There are many parts of the prickly devil’s club that are used today for food and medicinal purposes.
In the early spring, the very first shoots of leaves that appear are sought after by natural food hunters. Several authors note that the shoots are edible for only a couple days when they are very short because their spines harden quickly and no amount of cooking softens them. The flavor of these greens is described as “tasty” and also “quite unique.” Apparently, deer and moose will carefully feed on these tender, early shoots, too.
Other parts of the devil’s club plant have been used for eons by most Native tribes of Alaska and the Northwest. The uses are many and most involve helping with a wide range of ailments. For example, teas can be made from the stems and roots to supposedly relieve pain and help with arthritis. A local nickname for devil’s club in Southeast Alaska was “Tlingit aspirin,” referring to the local Native use of the plant as a pain reliever. Some early tribal shaman prescribed teas made from devil’s club stems for diabeticlike problems. They also placed stem or root strips directly on wounds to prevent infections.
Recently, scientists have isolated a large number of molecules from devil’s club that are part of many current pharmaceuticals. One of those compounds has the ability to reduce the amount of glucose in blood. So the ancient use of devil’s club for diabeteslike illness was “spot on,” and there are some recent anecdotal reports of people controlling their diabetes with devil’s club teas.
Additionally, early tribal shamans also used extracts from devil’s club to help cure colds and sore throats. More ethnobotanical analysis has shown that some of the compounds from devil’s club will hinder yeast growth and, specifically, suppress the growth of Mycobacterium. That genus of bacteria includes the cause of tuberculosis, and researchers are now looking at using these compounds on the drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis that are sweeping the world today.
The bright-red berries are sought after by brown and black bears as food in the fall. These same berries are supposedly inedible or poisonous for humans. Curiously, Native elders of Alaska and the Northwest have made a paste of these seeds and used it to kill head and body lice.
Devil’s club is a plant with completely different faces. It presents itself as a colorful foliage that attracts us to come closer, but its spines warn us to keep away. When we look even closer, within the stems and roots, there is an important pharmacy that Native people have known about for a long time, and modern scientists are currently exploring. Just be careful as you look.
David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. He is writing a series of columns on the biology of the Kenai River watershed.