Usually a large shrub belonging to the Araliaceae family, devil's club (botanical name Oplopanax horridus) mainly has its origin in the woodlands of western North America, where the climatic condition is cool and moist. In addition, this herb is also found growing on the different islands in Lake Superior. Devil's clubs is well-known for the plant's large palmate (shape of an open palm) leaves and straight woody stems. Also called Alaskan ginseng, devil's club is actually not a genuine ginseng. True ginseng belongs to the genus Panax.
Devils club or Alaskan ginseng is a shrub that grows straight up to a height of 9 feet (3 meters) and bears large palmate leaves. Yellow prickles cover the leaves, stems as well as the bark of this herb. Usually, this plant is found growing naturally in large clusters. Devil's club produces petite, white-greenish blooms that appear in pyramid-like clusters. The fruits of this herb have a bright red hue and they appear in terminal spikes. Bears are very fond of devil's club fruits.
Occasionally, people confuse devil's club with another plant called devil's claw. In fact, devil's claw has its origin in Africa and is generally sold in North America in the form of a non-prescription herbal product. This herbal product is sold with information that it is especially used in the form of an anti-inflammatory agent and an analgesic for treating arthritis as well as rheumatism. It is also important not to confuse devil's club with another herb having a somewhat similar name - devil's walking-stick (botanical name Aralia spinosa L.). Devil's walking-stick also has spiny branches similar to those of devil's club, but its leaves are two-times more compound with many leaflets compared to that of devil's club.
Root, bark, berries.
There was a time when many indigenous Indian tribes of North America extensively used the devil's club for therapeutic purposes. These communities employed the herb for its ability to alleviate pain. In modern herbalism, devil's club is used rarely and probably there is a need for further research to explore the health benefits of this herb. The stems as well as the root bark of devil's club possess anti-rheumatic, palliative, antiphlogistic, appetizing, cathartic, hypoglycemic, emmenagogue, blood purifying, pectoral, ophthalmic and tonic properties. An infusion prepared from the herb's stem and root bark is employed for treating bronchitis, colds and cough, stomach problems, tuberculosis and other problems. A decoction prepared from the herb is used internally to treat rheumatism. In addition, it is also used externally in the form of a wash on joints affected by arthritis and rheumatism.
Traditionally, a poultice prepared from devil's club bark has been employed to alleviate pain in different body areas. In addition, in earlier times, nursing mothers applied this poultice externally to their breasts to end excessive milk secretion. Similarly, a decoction prepared from the herb's root has been employed in the form of an eye wash for treating cataracts and it is also added to steam bath for alleviating common body aches. The burnt stems are blended with oil and rubbed on swollen joints in the form of an ointment. An extract obtained from the devil's club root bark is known to lower the levels of blood sugar, while an infusion made from the plant's bark has been traditionally employed to treat diabetes. This infusion also works as a tonic for the blood and liver. The inner bark of devil's club possesses emetic properties, especially when used in large doses. When taken with hot water, the infusion works as a purgative. The devil's club bark infusion is also used for treating colds and coughs, bowel cramps and stomach spasms. A poultice prepared with the inner bark of the herb is employed for healing wounds, sores and similar conditions. The berry-like fruits of devil's club are chafed on the scalp with a view to combat dandruff and get rid of lice. Its use is also known to make the hair shimmering.
Herbalists in the West mainly use devil's club for treating respiratory, autoimmune conditions, internal and external infections, eczema, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and sores. In addition, they also employ this herb as a stimulant and expectorant for respiratory conditions. Some western herbalists also use devil's club to treat high blood sugar levels and also improve overall health, in addition to a tonic for the pancreas.
Similar to several other medicinal plants, the commercialization of devil's club has given rise to some concerns. What has actually given rise to such concerns is that many feel that we need to recognize and respect the intellectual property rights of the indigenous North American Indian tribes who acquired and spread the knowledge regarding the therapeutic uses of this herb. There is a growing feeling that these original users of the herb should be given the real credit and compensated as well as balance the current uses of the herb in an ethno-botanical environment, amidst the failures of the existing legal mechanisms to achieve these objectives.
Traditionally, people have made decoctions as well as poultices for treating gastro-intestinal (GI) problems, including stomach aches, constipation, indigestion, gallstones, and even ulcers. According to the available ethno-botanical data, the extract obtained from the inner bark of devil's club seems to possesses anti-tussive, anti-pyretic, as well as anti-bacterial attributes. Traditionally, people have also been using the herb internally for treating various health conditions like arthritis, rheumatism, influenza, measles and even cancer. Taken in high doses, the herb has also been used in the form of a cathartic, emetic and purgative.
Several in vitro studies have demonstrated that the herb's extracts have the ability to slow down the growth of microbes responsible for tuberculosis. In addition, it appears that devil's club also helps to extend the life span of people using this herb and, at the same time, lessen leukemia in rats induced with severe myeloid leukemia.
Apart from the therapeutic uses of devil's club discussed above, traditionally native North Americans used this plant to make paints. Some of them continue to use the plant for this purpose even to this day.
In southeast Alaska, the Haida and Tlingit people have been using devil's club both for therapeutic as well as ceremonial purposes. They usually hang a piece of the plant at the top of their door with a view to keep evil spirits at bay. In addition, they harvest and use devil's club in various different ways. Like with several other native people of North America, it is a very common practice to drink the tea prepared from the herb. They also make a poultice with the herb and apply it topically in the form of ointments. It is worth mentioning here that a section of the Tlingit people is against the commercialization of devil's club, because they believe that it is an infringement of the sacred status of the plant.
Since devil's club has a close relation to American ginseng, a section of people believe that the herb possesses adaptogen attributes. In fact, devil's club is harvested as well as sold extensively as Alaskan ginseng for this purpose. There are apprehensions that such extensive and random harvesting of the plant may not only damage the existing devil's club populations, but also destroy its habitat. Morphologically as well as chemically, the true ginseng (genus Panax) is exceptional among other plants belonging to the family Araliaceae. Some closely related plants having some established adaptogen effects such as the Siberian ginseng (botanical name Eleutherococcus senticosus) also differ a lot chemically from the genus Panax (true ginseng).
Generally, devil's club is found growing naturally in damp, dense woodland habitats and found growing copiously in forests having old coniferous trees. Devil's club grows over a vast area ranging from south-central regions of Alaska to western Oregon and in the east up to western Alberta and Montana. In addition, disjunct native growths of devil's club are also found growing over an area of 1,500 km on Passage Island and Isle Royale in Lake Superior, Michigan as well as Slate Island and Porphyry Island in Ontario.
This species propagates via a layering process whereby they form clonal colonies. In fact, what may come to view as numerous devil's club plants growing together may initially have been a single plant. This plant forms several clones of itself, which detach themselves from the original plant after having established their individual roots.
Infusion: The medicinal use of devil's club involves taking an infusion prepared from the herb or an extract from the herb. To prepare the infusion, steep one teaspoonful of finely chopped herb for each cup of water (250 ml) for anything between 25 to 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can also use a 1:4 dry liquid extract in dosage of 10 drops to 60 drops anything between once to four times daily.
While devil's club offers a number of health benefits, this herb should be used with caution. In fact, pregnant women and nursing mothers should stay away from devil's club, as there is not much scientific evidence regarding the side effects of using the herb in these conditions. It has been found that devil's club has the potential to expel afterbirth as well as trigger post-partum menstrual bleeding.
Consuming devil's club infusion on a regular basis may also result in excessive weight gain. In addition, the prickles found on the leaves and stems of the plant are said to trigger allergic reactions. A patient who ingested the diluted extract of the devil's club inner root bark is known to have suffered from diarrhea.