The Herb Report: Devil's Club
In spite of its threatening name, devil's club (Oplopanax horridum) is a plant with a potential array of beneficial uses. A member of the Aralia family, it may prove to be a local, cheaper and more environmentally sound alternative to ginseng for people living in the Northwest. This herb is familiar to those who hike the wetter parts of the Cascade range. It favors areas dominated by red cedar riparian thickets, and generally deeply-shaded spaces. Standing three to ten feet tall, with large protective leaves and a very spiny stem, it grows from previous growth. It is prolific in canopied habitat, but does not survive clear cuts. Its spines can be removed by scraping cautiously.
The medicine in devil's club is concentrated in the inner bark of the stem and true roots. Michael Moore says of the plant, "First of all, and most simply devil's club is a strong, reliable, and safe expectorant and respiratory stimulant...." Joy Olson, a local herbalist, backs this up with personal experience. She successfully uses devil's club to clear the mucous conditions brought on by bronchitis. This makes sense for us living in the damp, foggy climate of the Northwest.
Another potential use for devil's club is as an adaptogen. Glycosides in the Aralia family decrease the hypothalamus and pituitary stress responses in our bodies, and according to Michael Moore, devil's club is high in them.( 1) In traditional use, the root bark was chewed or made into a tea as a powerful purgative, aiding indigestion and stomach problems, although potentially causing irritation.( 2) The Cowlitz used a decoction of the bark and root with prince's pine (Chimaphila umbellata) and cascara bark (Rhamnus purshiana) for tuberculosis or postpartum to establish regular menstrual flow.( 3) After removing the thorns, the bark was peeled, then placed on a woman's breast to slow an excessive flow of milk.( 3) Other Native Americans have used devil's club for insulin resistant diabetes.( 1) A steam bath using the bark in a tub of water eased general pains and sickness.( 4) Rheumatism and rheumatoid arthritis were also treated with a bark tea.( 3) Moore supports this use, but adds that it is most helpful if taken regularly during remissions since its main value is to modify metabolic stress.
USE OF DEVIL'S CLUB by THE NATIVE AMERICANS
A woman (or man) in bed with pains for a long time would send her with a small ax and an old mat to collect the devil's club plant. He prays and explains to the plant why he has come and what he wants the plant to do. Then he chops down four stalks, removes the tops, wraps them in the old mat and goes back home. He builds his fire to singe off the spines. He peels the bark and boils it in a kettle all day. He puts the liquid in a bath tub, with a board where his wife can sit on top and steam, covered with two blankets. When she is too hot to stand the heat, she returns to bed after changing into dry clothes. Usually she feels much better. Sometimes Lomatium nudicaule is added for...a "very strong medicine." Included are prayers...to the two plants. Boas, 240-242, 1930.
The bark is peeled and boiled after the spines are cut. This drink is taken for colds or used to bathe the body afflicted with rheumatism. The dried and powdered root made a perfume, deodorant or baby talc. Gunther 41, 1945.
John Thomas tells of scraping the spines from the stems and making a tea of several stem pieces for arthritis. The patient would drink large quantities, as much as possible, with no other drinks, for...days. It gets stronger and more bitter after it steeps awhile, so the dosage decreased as the medicine ages. "When you take medicine like that, you don't drink anything else or it won't work," said John Thomas. The charcoal, from the wood, was made into a face paint to use at ceremonies and was given such strong protective powers, it was not possible to look into the face of the wearer. Turner, et.al. 96, 1983.
Annie York considered this plant a relative of poison oak because of the allergic skin reaction from touching the spines. She said not everyone was affected by this poison. She uses it now as a medicine. She cuts a stick, about 30 cm. long, scrapes off the outer bark and spines, then stores the sticks. When needed, a decoction with 4-5 pieces 2-3 cm. long is drunk in doses of about one-half cup. This is taken before eating...to replace all other liquids for...various illnesses. Her great aunt gave it to Annie's sister [who lost] too much weight, and it was very effective. But if it is taken too long, too much weight may be gained. She had also heard of it being used for diabetes and the flu. Others mention it as medicine for everything, including ulcers. Turner, et al., 164, 1990.
From Plant Medicines of the Pacific Northwest: How Northwest Peoples Used Plants as Medicines as Recorded by Anthropologists, by Krista Thie c. 1995, unpublished.
(1) Moore, Michael. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the West, Red Crane Books, NM.
(2) Smith, H.I. 1928. Materia Medica of the Bella Coola and Neighboring Tribes of British Columbia. National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 56, Ottawa, Ontario. 1973; and Turner, Nancy J., The Ethnobotany of the S. Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia. Economic Botany 27(3):257-310.
(3) Gunther, Erna. 1945. Ethnobotany of W. Washington. University of WA Press, Seattle, WA.
(4) Boas, F. 1930. Religion of the Kwakiutl. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology 10.
The American Herb Association.
By Fara Currim