Devil's Club

Oplopanax horridus


The singularly unique and incomparable devil’s club grows wild along the northwest US coast up through Canada to Alaska. The plant can easily reach 12 feet tall, has a tall, sharply-thorned stalk and wide branching palmate leaves that are also lined with spines. The Latin name, Oplopanax horridus, is actually three words: oplo armored, panax heal-all and horridus fierce. This plant’s name literally means “fiercely armored heal-all.” And, that it certainly does seem to be.

The sharp brittle thorns can break off and get lodged in the skin where they fester and become infected. Think rose thorns on steroids. Devil’s club grows in thickets that are nearly impenetrable. The settlers, trying to tame the Oregon wilderness, didn’t appreciate it at all.

First Nations people, however, saw the beauty in the plant and recognized the medicinal power of the sweet, pungent and bitter bark. Referred to by them as Most Sacred, it is beloved by the coastal First Nations who traditionally employ it as a panacea. Oplopanax specifically addresses lung and stomach complaints, arthritis, pain, inflammation, skin infections, sugar imbalances and diabetes. It is highly regarded for ritual and ceremonial purposes.  

An analgesic decoction of inner bark is made into a steam bath to relieve aches and pains. The Kwakiutl use the bark this way and also chew the root for stomach pains. The Lummi use a poultice of the bark on the breasts to reduce milk flow. The Makah use it as a treatment for arthritis. The Okanagan employ this plant as an expectorant for dry coughs and as a blood purifier. The Haisla make use of it as a general tonic and the Gitxsan to heal stomach ulcers and ease pain.

Other traditional uses of this plant include an infusion of the inner bark as an appetite stimulant; a decoction of the roots as a contraceptive; the inner bark mashed and swallowed; or, the decoction of inner bark taken as a purgative to expel afterbirth, regulate menstruation and ease cramps.

An infusion or decoction of inner bark and sometimes roots, alone and in formulas, is used to treat Type 2 diabetes. Respiratory ailments, coughs and colds are treated with a decoction of the inner stem bark, whole stems and sometimes roots. The inner bark is also chewed and worn as an amulet around the neck to counter these ills.

Sores, cuts, boils, burns and skin infections are addressed with the inner bark infusion used as a wash or a poultice or wound dressing. Dried inner bark is pulverized with pitch or burnt to ash and mixed with oil and applied to the skin. Berries are pounded into a paste and applied externally.

There is extensive phytochemical evidence that supports devil’s club’s widespread use to treat internal and external infections. In fact, science verifies that devil’s club possesses significant antibacterial, antimycobacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Recent research studies have also noted its ability to inhibit pancreatic cancer cell proliferation and treat acute myeloid leukemia.

Unfortunately, devil’s club is currently being aggressively harvested and marketed as a ginseng-like herbal medicine. Despite some morphological similarities between the Araliaceae members Panax American ginseng and Eleuthero Siberian ginseng, and devil's club, the different genera are chemically and ethnobotanically diverse. Some claim devil’s club to possess adaptogenic properties. There is little conclusive scientific research to demonstrate that it has ginseng’s adaptogenic and immune-enhancing properties. However, it certainly does have a long history of use by First Nations people as a tonic and as a panacea.

Devil’s club is helpful for people who are willing to penetrate deeply into their core, to take a closer look at the places they have been wounded, are holding pain and are covering up or running away.

Flower Essence Devil’s club flower essence is indicated when there are poor energetic boundaries or territorial conflicts. It helps us feel secure and in harmony with our surroundings, helps us boldly express our truth.

Magical Lore Widespread magical uses of this plant include an infusion of inner bark employed as a cleansing bath for personal protection and purification, and the use of the aerial stems as an amulet for protection against any number of external influences.

Devil’s club is a deeply spiritual medicine for many First Nations people. Purification, warding off curses, protection, strength, healing and “dancing between the worlds” are some of its energetic associations.

Engaged in a five year training with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, entitled Walking in Two Worlds, I intuited that a stalk of devil’s club would be a good ally, and it has been! I keep it on a table next to my bed for inspiration, protection and help walking in both worlds. I employ it as a talking stick when one is called for. It knows, and keeps, everyone’s secrets.

Jon Keyes, who has worked extensively with this plant, says that devil’s club protects us from supernatural and psychic onslaught, from those who would wish us harm. It helps us stand strong. It is an especially important plant ally for those of us working in the healing arts as it acts as a kind of emotional shield. We are often confronted by trauma and pain and may take on the woes of others as though they are our own. Creating firm boundaries is necessary work for our emotional and physical health and Oplopanax knows how to help us do that.

“The thorns of devil’s club offer the potential for wounding, for the plant world to pierce the boundary of the human world. It also presents the boundary between this world and the next - it has the ability to pierce the veil of normal human reality and allow entrance into transcendent realms. Indeed, if you sit with the plant long enough, you can feel a  presence that is quite startling, a sort of fierce power.” Jon Keyes

The Bella Coola, Gitxsan, Kwakiutl and Nitinaht are among the numerous tribes that engage with this plant for its strong connection to protective medicine. It is seen as bestowing good fortune, and used to help strengthen and initiate healers and shamans. Haisla burn and char the bark and then use the ashes to paint their faces for ceremonial work.

Culture Heavy gloves are needed to harvest devil’s club. Cut the stalks at the very base and then cut these stalks into 2-3 foot long pieces to make it easier to work with. Use a sharp knife to remove the exterior bark and the thorns until the green inner bark is apparent. It is this green inner bark that is used. First Nations people are rightly concerned that commercial harvesting will lead to over-harvesting of devil’s club and will compromise its ability to thrive. Wildgatherers need to work in concert with First Nations people to determine appropriate and ethical harvesting methods. Devil’s club’s tall stalks fall along the ground in snaky decumbent stems that criss cross each other. A raceme of greenish flowers blooms in summer and then turns into a cluster of bright red berries. Spiritual/energetic medicine dose of tincture is 1-3 drops, use 15-30 drops up to three times a day for a medicinal effect.

“I work with Oplopanax often in the visioning realm. Devil's club tends the central fire in my inner realms and when I go there, we greet each other warmly, dance ‘round the fire’ and then I am prompted by devil's club to jump in the fire and burn to ashes so I can go deeper into the Underworld. When I am done, I come back through the fire again, new and old. I am so thankful for this relationship and I feel such strength & stability from devil's club.” Suzanne Stone

“Herbs play a vital role in our health and well-being. Not only are herbs important both nutritionally and medicinally, but they also form a direct link with intuition and higher intelligence. Far more than just “green matter,” herbs have an inherent ability to channel life energy and to connect with those places in us that are “disconnected” and in need of healing.

Herbs contain chemicals that have no apparent function for the life processes of the plant. However these very chemicals have a direct and positive influence on the human body. Is some divine plan at work here?

Perhaps it is true that humankind’s oldest system of medicine offers a form of healing that transcends the physical and connects us directly with a higher consciousness.” Rosemary Gladstar

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