With the warming soil and longer daylight of spring, small leaf buds tip the devil's club's wicked stalks. This plant is loved and hated at the same time.
Those spines are sharper than needles, and they break off in the skin. The painful stickers defy tweezers, but usually fester in a few days, and can be worked out at that time. The springy devil's club stalks often lay along the ground, seemingly in wait for me to step on one and have the working end snap up and then embed thorns in my leg. Jeans are not adequate chaps, but thick raingear is. I often wear leather gloves also, while hiking difficult country, because devil's club generally presents itself as a convenient handhold when I am slipping down a steep hillside.
Devil's club is well loved as a plant of beauty and medicine, though. With huge palmate leaves and showy red berries it is used as a decorative shrub in some Alaskan gardens. In the fall those big leaves turn yellow, and become a lovely sight in the forest understory.
Devil's club has been used as physical and spiritual medicine for longer than history records. It is used for minor complaints as well as serious illnesses*, for good luck, and for magic. The methods for preparing this plant for use are varied, including tea, tincture, and salve, chewing the inner bark fresh or dried, burning it and using the ash, and more*. Most sources recommend using the inner bark of the root, including the stems that lie along the ground and no longer have spines. I have had several Alaska Natives tell me that the medicine in the spiny stalk is just as good as the root*. They wear heavy leather gloves to strip off the sharp spines and then process the stalk as they would the root.
The berries are poisonous to humans, but bears love them.
Holly told me that she was going out to collect devil's club root and invited me along. Oh yes, thank you, Holly! Yesterday I got to the meeting place a few minutes early and spent the time, um, improvising. I have a nifty tool for digging roots, and, having just moved, it is ...buried somewhere. So I rummaged around in the truck and came up with a plastic ice scraper to dig with. I had brought loppers to cut the roots and branches.
Holly chose a great spot near a stream. The soil was fairly loose and there were lots of devil's club. She uses a dandy little saw that is in her folding knife to cut the stalks, and she also tried out the loppers.
There are lots of ways to collect devil's club. Here's how I go about it. I look for stalks that are growing out of a recumbent stem; preferably one that is a few inches under the forest duff. Those old stalks have become a root and are usually long and fairly straight. I dig around the root and expose it for three or four feet, clipping off spiny branches with the loppers. I then cut both ends and pull or cut any small roots holding it in place.
Stalks that are cut off should be used or have the cut end tucked well into loosened soil and then tamped in. I have returned to places where I have harvested in the past and witnessed that the cuttings I planted are growing.
It is common to see a plant that has multiple stalks arcing out of one spot. I stay away from those for three reasons.
- The roots are usually twisted, difficult to dig out, short, and hard to work with.
- Far too much plant has to be destroyed for the amount of root gathered.
- Those bushes are often 'mother' plants.
I look around the periphery of a multi-stalked devil's club like this for small stalks shooting up out of an old branch or root. By digging at the base of one of those 'suckers' I can usually find a stout, shallow root that heads back toward the main plant. The 'sucker' is generally well rooted, so I take the root between that and the 'mother plant' so that both survive.
Holly found an example of this and neatly dug all around the root using the scraper and her gloved hands. She used the saw on her folding knife and the loppers to cut the roots and then lifted her prize out of the ground.
She usually uses a garden trowel to dig the roots with, but the Wildcrafting Fairies had determined that we were to work closer to the earth this day, so they hid it from her. Okay, possibly the thought of Wildcrafting Fairies is just a wee bit fanciful. Or maybe not. Either way, we got right into our work with our hands in the earth. Holly is protecting her hands with "fish gloves" - cloth gloves with rubberized palms and fingers.
My gloves are goatskin drivers that are very flexible and very tough. I get them from Oregon Glove Company here. No connection to the company, I just love the gloves.
A soft, misty drizzle doesn't deter us from enjoying the surroundings. We try another area to see if there is a difference in the roots. Even with two dogs along as extra eyes and ears, Holly is alert and aware as she explores and enjoys the woods.
I love being out in the woods, too, hearing the rushing creek and birds singing, smelling the tangy freshness of trees and plants awakening, and walking in soft moss. Within a few minutes I am in the headspace that allows me to ask the forest for a little of its bounty and then thank the plant for it's gift. Respecting and appreciating the living organism that I am harvesting adds to its value and prevents me from over-harvesting. Also, I bear in mind that I need to save the time and energy to process the roots quickly.
Above are the roots that I harvested. I cleaned most of the dirt and moss off in the field. After this photo was taken I hosed them off with rainwater, scrubbing them lightly with a plastic scrubby pad to remove dirt.
Now the outer brown bark needs to be scraped off. In past years I used a knife, holding it perpendicular to the root and scraping the outer bark off. Now I use a loopy, stainless steel scrubby pad to scrub that brown layer off. It is faster and doesn't gouge the inner bark as much.
The inner bark may be light cream, light tan, or green. The sappy pockets in the inner bark are often deep yellow to orange. The bark is flexible, and should come away from the woody core of the root cleanly. It is much easier if the root is processed within a day of harvest.
That inner bark is where the medicine is concentrated.
I use a potato peeler to take the bark off. You can also use a sharp knife.
With a light touch and back-and-forth motion, the peeler takes thinner strips that will dry more quickly or provide more surface area to the medium it will be used in.
I also use my thumbnail to peel bits of the bark away from the woody core. Working with devil's club root lightly stains my hands and gives them a pungent, spicy smell. Some of the properties of the plant are transdermal, so the medicine is working right through my skin.*
Working over a sheet or a large bowl contains the shavings.
I have been carefully experimenting (self guinea-pigging) with devil's club for over ten years. I've harvested in the spring and late fall, made tea, tincture, capsules, salves, and directly applied fresh bark to sprains and sore spots.*
In the next posts I'll show a few devil's club preparations.
Update: Several of you have asked about when to harvest. I prefer late fall or early spring though a good product may be made from the summer plant also. In late fall the roots smell stronger and seem to be more medicinal. Nothing scientific here, just my personal observations. If the weather allows I harvest in late October or early November.
There have been reports of toxicity in the root bark at the time that the leaves turn yellow and fall off. All of the reports that I have read have been second or third hand, and somewhat vague. Caution is a good idea. I have never experienced a toxic reaction, but I also listen closely to my body and am careful when using this powerful plant. If you have any direct knowledge of devil's club toxicity during certain times I would love to hear from you.
*Please note! * These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The material on this site is provided for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult your physician before using salves or tinctures, or using plants as medicine.
More on foraging and subsistence foods in Southeast Alaska:
- Foraging Nettles, Tasty Spring Greens
- Processing and Using Nettles
- Bullwhip Kelp Pickle Recipe
- Harvesting Bullwhip Kelp
- Highbush Cranberry Ketchup
- Highbush Cranberry Punch
- Wild Tea
Some edible mushrooms that I have found: