Devil's Club: A Medicine Cabinet for Alaska Tribe

Thorny Plant's Popularity May Endanger Its Sacred Role

George Bennett holds the limb of a devil's club plant.

George Bennett, a member of Alaska's Tlingit tribe, uses a leaf from a skunk cabbage to protect his hands from the razor-sharp spine of a devil's club limb. Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine, NPR
SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium sign

The logo of the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium features the devils club. Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine, NPR
The devil's club's red fruit is candy for bears.

The devil's club's red fruit is candy for bears. National Park Service hide caption

itoggle caption National Park Service

In Sitka, Alaska, one of the most revered members of the community is the thorny devil's club. But the plant's popularity as a medicinal may endanger its sacred role in Tlingit culture. NPR's Ketzel Levine reports.

The Tlingit have turned to devil's club for a list of ailments you wouldn't wish on an enemy: from coughs and colds to stomach ulcers, tuberculosis and hypoglycemia. Tribe members steep it into teas, mash it into salves, chew, sip and steam it. It's also used to ward off evil. The plant, dubbed the "Tlingit aspirin" has not been approved for medicinal use by the Food and Drug Administration.

In a report for npr.org, Levine describes the devil's club characteristics and native habitats:

Devil's club, or Oplopanax horridus, is a plant with an unmistakable presence. It has leaves like palm fronds, spines like daggers and red fruit that's candy for bears. It sticks its long neck out as far south as Oregon, and to the east, has even surprised a few Michigan hikers with its cloak of vicious thorns. But the plant is perhaps most common to the bear, deer and salmon habitats of Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

Growing undisturbed among 500-year-old trees, devil's club runs with abandon. It scampers up and across these spacious, wild woodlands, where the conifers are so widely spaced that the sun pours right in, and right through the plant's open-palmed leaves.

From a distance, devil's club looks enticing; its foliage, balanced on top of long, leggy canes, seem to offer an almost tropical respite. But a close encounter with the plant is one you're not likely to forget: spines cover every inch of its stem, and punctuate the undersides of its leaves.

If you're not inclined to harvest the plant for its medicinal properties — as First Peoples have done for centuries — devil's club can seem short on charm. In areas where it goes unchecked, it's even considered a nasty weed. But horticultural fans of Oplopanax horridus praise its use as a bold foliage plant, among them garden writer William Cullina. In his book, Native Trees, Shrubs, & Vines, Cullina finds inspiration in the details of devil's club leaves:

"Artery-size veins create deep channels in the blade, like a landscape scoured by rivers. The tissue in between the veins is itself puckered and textured, and the leaves, arrayed as they are on very long petioles, create the impression of a rich green quilt that is just singing with design possibilities."

Devil's club is reliably hardy to minus 20 degrees, though it's not all that tolerant of heat and sun. Gardeners who want to try it might keep in mind its natural habitat: damp forest floors with moist, acidic soil.

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