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Making Devil's Club Salve and Tincture

The inner bark of devil's club has a medicinal taste. It is kind of spicy, maybe a touch hot, and not pleasant to my senses. I'm chewing a piece of fresh devil's club root bark right now, and will only be able to keep it in my mouth for a few minutes. This experiment is to see if I get the same mild sense of well-being from chewing the fresh plant material as I do from drinking devil's club tea or taking the tincture.

There are many reported medicinal uses of devil's club. Historically it has been used for sprains, boils, arthritis, diabetes, stomach troubles, tuberculosis, colds, as a general tonic and much more.* This is powerful medicine and deserves respect. Internal use of devil's club can dangerously lower blood sugar, so check with your doctor before using it. There are more reasons to be very careful with devil's club, too, so I will list some recommended reading at the end of this post.

I've been working with a batch of devil's club (Oplopanax horridum)  root inner bark, and have some images and methods to share with you. Once the work of collecting and preparing the devil's club is done (to read about that click HERE) then making salve is easy. There are lots of different recipes, and this is just the way I go about it.

I am making two batches; one with organic olive oil and the other with organic coconut oil and a little olive oil.


Using a sharp knife, chop the bark.

Devil's club root bark is more compact and easier to manage if it is chopped.

Coconut oil is firm at room temperature, so using a little olive oil with it makes a good consistency for salve.

Coconut oil is firm at room temperature, so using a little olive oil with it makes a good consistency for salve.

Put equal measures of firmly packed devil's club bark and oil into a double boiler. The double boiler is necessary for both safety and the quality of the salve.  Turn the heat to low. The smallest burner on my stove is still too hot, so I put a metal trivet under the pan to reduce the heat. I don't want to cook the roots, just extract the medicinal constituents.

Making devil's club salve

Making devil's club salve

The coconut oil is solid at room temperature. Because I don't want the salve to be as firm as coconut oil I use about 3/4 coconut oil and 1/4 olive oil. 

In the second batch I am using straight olive oil and then will thicken it with beeswax. 

I usually run the stove in the daytime, and turn it off at night, giving the process two to four days. This is a great back-of-the-stove project if you have a wood or oil stove! 

After a few days, strain the oil through a cloth. I use polyester silkscreen fabric, which is tough but allows the oil to pass through easily.

Pour the whole batch into a cloth lined bowl...

Pour the whole batch into a cloth lined bowl...

... and give it a squeeze to get most of the oil.

... and give it a squeeze to get most of the oil.

At this point I usually add a little vitamin E oil as a preservative. 

The coconut oil mixture is going to be just the right consistency at room temperature, but the olive oil batch needs to be thickened with beeswax. Slice or grate the wax and add a small amount to the oil. I added two tablespoons of grated beeswax to start.

Grated beeswax.

Grated beeswax.

Stirring beeswax into the devil's club infused oil.

Stirring beeswax into the devil's club infused oil.

After the wax melts, dip a spoonful of the oil out and allow it to cool. If it is a good consistency for salve, then the mixture is ready to put into containers. If it is too runny then add more beeswax a little at a time and test the consistency again. In the batch I finished today I had to add one more tablespoon of grated wax. 

Devil's club salve make fill containers Alaska ginseng

I filled little sample containers to give away, and put the rest into a small jelly jar for my use. I plan to make another batch this fall when the medicine in the roots is said to be stronger.  

This is a basic salve, and other ingredients or other plants can be added.  

Devil's Club Tincture

Tinctures may be used internally or externally depending on what plants they are made from and the desired effect.* I make a Labrador Tea tincture and Arnica tincture that are only for external use, and Sundew tincture that is for internal use.* Devil's club tincture can be used externally or internally.* Tinctures can be very strong and very specific, and doses are measured in drops. I will use twenty drops of my devil's club tincture, but what you need may be very different.* Please read up if you are thinking about making a preparation such as this.

Making devil's club tincture medicine medicinal Alaska ginseng

Once the plant material is collected and prepared then making a tincture is easy to do. I pack the devil's club root bark very firmly into a jar and pour alcohol over it, filling the jar to the top. For fresh bark I use Everclear, and for dried bark I use vodka. Then I put the jar into a cool, dark place, take it out once a day, shake it, and put it back.

After fourteen days the tincture is ready to strain. Pour the contents of the jar into a cloth lined bowl, then gather the cloth up and squeeze the tincture out. Put the tincture into a glass container (a dark colored glass is best), and label it. I like to be specific with the label so that I know the time of year the bark was collected, if it was tinctured fresh or dry, and what kind of alcohol was used.

Filling dropper bottles with Devil's Club Tincture.

Filling dropper bottles with Devil's Club Tincture.

Here are some sources for information on devil's club:

Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore

Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield

Three Herbs:  Devil's Club, Oregon Grape & Chaparral by Ryan Drum (this is an article on his website)

Plants of Coastal British Columbia by Pojar and MacKinnon  

*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 TeaHarvesting Devil's Club Root

More on foraging and subsistence foods:

Some edible mushroom that I find around Southeast Alaska:

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:

Highbush Cranberry Punch

Yesterday I posted about making highbush cranberry ketchup and promised that I would let you know about a treat you can make from the seed mash. This is a simple drink that is tasty and slightly fizzy.

Leftover seed mash from making highbush cranberry ketchup.

Leftover seed mash from making highbush cranberry ketchup.

After straining out most of the pulp to make the ketchup there is this unappetizing, seedy goop left over. It has a lot of berry goodness left in it, though! Put it in a big bowl and add 4 cups of water. Using a mixer or whisk (or even a DeWalt Mixer which you can see here) beat the water and mash together for 3 to 5 minutes. It will get bubbly.

Mixing water with the seed mash.

Strain the juice off using a strainer or cheesecloth. Squeeze firmly, even if you have to use your bare hands. Hey, you worked hard picking those berries, so you are getting the most out of them!

Add to the juice:

The outer rind of a lemon, peeled off with a potato peeler. You can squeeze the lemon juice and add that, too, if you don't have other plans for it.

1 cup sugar or to taste.

At serving time fill a glass halfway with highbush cranberry juice and the other half with Martinelli's Sparkling Cider.

If you are celebrating then add a shot of blueberry liqueur or lowbush cranberry liqueur.


Alaska Beachcomber

Highbush cranberry punch

More yummy foods from the woods here: Food and Medicine from Nature 

And if you haven't made highbush cranberry ketchup the recipe is here.

There's also Highbush Cranberry Sweet and Sour Sauce!