A prickly shrub with long, decumbent and often entangled branches or stolons, devil's club has dense spinose stems, petioles, and leaves. Each leaf is cordate at its base, deeply or shallowly five to seven-lobed. The lobes can be acute or with tails. The inflorescense, shorter than the leaves, carries umbels of green and white flowers. The fruits are inedible orange berries. The thick taproot contains a soft, pithy inner bark.
Devil's club is common as undergrowth in southeastern Alaska on moist well-drained soil, forming impenetrable thickets in coastal and flood-plain forests.
The Kenai Tanainas boiled the stems and branches, then drank the resulting decoction for fever. The Upper Cook Inlet people boiled the inner bark of the underground portion of the plant and drank the tea for tuberculosis, stomach trouble, and colds as well as fever. The same inner bark is said to have been a treatment for swollen glands as well as boils, sores and other external infections. After it was baked slowly until it was very dry, it was rubbed between the hands until it was broken and soft. This pulp was then placed on the affected area to draw out infection. (Kari)
The Chugach Eskimos of Prince William Sound employed the ashes of Oplopanax horridum to treat burns. (Birket-Smith, cited in Kari)
De Laguna states that devil's club was "perhaps the most important medicinal and magical plant" of the Yakutat Tlingit. The shaman as well as the layman chewed the stem bark (scraped of its thorns) for its emetic and purgative effects as well as for a general cure-all. These people also drank devil's club infusions and used the bark as poultices and on hot rocks in the bath house.
The Haida people were still using devil's club for a variety of complaints in 1965. (Justice, cited in Kari) They would mix the dried inner bark with cedar or spruce pitch for a waterproof dressing for wounds. Other groups of people on the Northwest Coast have used the plant for medicine and to obtain supernatural power.
The modern medical world has been interested in devil's club since the 1930s, due to the discovery of the possible presence of an insulinlike substance in the plant. It does seem to be of value in maintenance of diabetes but its chemistry is still under investigation. The therapeutic action is hypoglycemic. (Lewis) (Kari and Smith, unpublished)
Back to index
Copyright © 1987 by Eleanor G. Viereck