Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Devil's Club Sun Tea

Some of you have been writing in to ask about how to make devil's club tea. There's several ways to go about it and happily one of the easiest methods is also my favorite! Sun tea is a simple, gentle process.

Fill a jar with cool drinking water. Add several spoonfuls of dried devil's club inner bark. You can also add some dried mint at this point for flavor.

To see how to prepare devil's club bark go to Harvesting Devil's Club Root. For tea you can use the inner bark of the stalk, so you don't need to dig the root. Just be sure to wear appropriate gloves and eye protection to handle devil's club stalks! Dry the bark in a dehydrator, a barely warm oven, or on racks above the wood stove. Keep the temperature low and air moving through the bark bits.

The dried bark bits can be ground finer in a coffee grinder and then ironed into tea bags. (See Wild Tea for photos of filling tea bags.)

Give it a stir, and then set the jar out in a sunny, safe location. A jar of water can create a magnifying glass which can start a fire when the sun shines through it, so I set mine out on the metal boat deck.  The towel and pot holder are just for the photos.

Over a few hours or the course of the day the tea will become a lovely, light golden color.

Strain the tea, add flavors if you like - honey and lemon for you? - and sip a cup while relaxing. Devil's club tea has a medicinal taste. There is usually a light sheen of plant oil on the surface of devil's club tea, which is normal and not harmful. Refrigerate any remaining tea and use it up over the next couple of days.

Devil's club tea is invigorating for some people and gives a gentle lift for others. I like to have a cup to bring myself back after a long, strenuous task or if I am feeling generally wrung out.

Sun tea is a great way to make devil's club tea, but not the only way. You can make devil's club tea by pouring boiling water over the dried inner bark (an infusion), or make a decoction by simmering it. Each method creates a slightly different product.

 Devil's club is a powerful plant, and it's many sharp spines are a reminder to handle it with physical and spiritual respect in every step.

There are many articles on the medicinal qualities of devil's club: Ryan Drum, National Geographic, and Juneau Empire are a few.

Devil's club can lower blood sugar when used internally. If you have any reason to have concern there then check with your doctor.

Wishing you a sunshiny day,

Alaska Beachcomber

More posts about wilderness food and medicine:

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.

 

 

A Short Walk in the Forest

You know those times where you have an hour, just an hour, to take some sweet down time? A little gap in a busy day to enjoy nature and allow it to flow through your being? In Southeast Alaska that is enough time to have a very nice walk surrounded by the life of the forest. No buildings, no traffic, just the chaotic patterns of another world.

A friend and I went for a walk like that, and at first this forest looked busy, full, and a bit random.

Spruce, alder, devil's club, skunk cabbage, fiddlehead ferns, mosses, lichens...and did no one tell them to be neat and organized in how they grew? The rows and right angles that humans build for themselves are nowhere in sight here!

But in a few minutes the patterns start to resolve in a soothing design.

Cindy showed me her favorite tree in this place; a magnificent spruce that has lived here for hundreds of years.

One big spruce tree

The nearby creek is a clue to the size of the spruce tree. It is a salmon stream. The spawning salmon do much more than lay eggs for the next generation. Their bodies feed the stream and the forest. Bears catch the fish, often haul them into the forest, eat the yummiest, fattest parts of the fish, and then head back to the creek for another one. The remains of the fish carcasses add precious nitrogen to the soil, feeding the trees. The trees grow bigger and shade the stream, keeping it cool during warm summer weather. The fish need that cooler water in order to survive long enough to spawn.

I think that is a super-cool fish-bear-tree cycle. 

The fish haven't come up this stream yet, and the bears are still eating greens and roots. 

No steam. The bear had been through hours before we were there. 

Cindy pointing out that the bear was eating roots. 

Cindy pointing out that the bear was eating roots. 

The only wildlife that we actually saw on our short walk were birds and this guy. 

Slugs are a part of the temperate rainforest. Finding the right one at the right time might win you the top prize in a slug race. Its very exciting. (Remember - we live on islands and make our own fun.)

Brutus, in the photo above, got to go about his business undisturbed.  Doesn't he look like a tough slug? His beady little eyestalks are looking at you.

Brutus is about five inches long, which is medium-large in our area.  

Devil's club bushes and alder trees.

And that is it. I am ready to lay down in the moss of the forest floor and daydream the afternoon away looking up through the big devil's club leaves. Oh, yeah, in less than an hour I am calmed, refreshed, grounded, and able to go back into town with a peaceful outlook.

Try it sometime.  

Wishing you the happiness of the natural world, 

Alaska Beachcomber

You may also like: Forest Bridges, Abundance 

Harvesting Devil's Club Root

Devil's club (Oplopanax horridus)

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.

Devil's club i(Oplopanax horridus) n late summer.

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.

Devil's club stalks radiating out from a central point. Avoid harvesting a plant like this.

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.

 

Digging out a devil's club root.

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.

Holly with a large devil's club root.

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.

Devil's club roots ready to process.

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. 

A stainless steel scrubber works well to take the brown, outer bark off.

A knife can also be used to scrape the outer bark off.

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. 

Pulling the inner bark of Devil's Club off of the woody core.

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.*

A potato peeler works well for removing the inner bark.

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.

Happy wildcrafting! 

Alaska Beachcomber

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 Devil's Club: Devil's Club Sun TeaMaking Devil's Club Salve and Tincture

More on foraging and subsistence foods in Southeast Alaska:

Some edible mushrooms that I have found: