Wild Plants of the Copper Basin: Devil's Club (Echinopanax horridum; Oplopanax horridus)
By Janelle Eklund
Mid-July dressed the ground in a profusion of green. Five cars led a procession from Kenny Lake to Chitina. Destination: Michael Moody's enchanted garden. Twenty of us, in the Janice Schofield plant workshop, felt like fairies as we stepped out of our vehicles. A path lined with tall Artemisia, fireweed, and other greenery led to the garden gate. An old door served as the gate, fitting perfectly between two trees. Stepping into the garden was magical. A carpet of chickweed and pineapple weed graced the beds full of garden produce. We had a heyday picking the weeds to be used in medicinal recipes. Everything in the garden seemed to have a harmonious cohabitation relationship. It was so enchanting and magical it was hard to leave. But we were beckoned away to experience another plant that grew in the area.
I was surprised to see that Devil's club grows in this Chitina microclimate. I'm used to seeing it closer to coastal areas, like Valdez. This plant grows fairly tall - up to 10' (Alaska Trees and Shrubs), and it's large maple shaped leaves look like big umbrellas shielding the forest floor. Maneuvering through them with their spiny legs can be tricky. The legs (stems) are very thick with sharp spines. Don't get 'stung' by them as they can become imbedded in the skin and cause festering. But, not to be deterred, careful harvest can result in good medicinal qualities. Wearing leather gloves is a must when cutting and getting to the inner bark. Spring is the best time to harvest this 'devily' plant but it can also be harvested in the fall. Using leather gloves, peel the bark from the stem. As it slips off, the outer spiny bark comes off easy and then you are safe to touch the inner bark.
Medicinal Flora of the Alaska Natives, by Ann Garibaldi, says that a strong decoction of the boiled cambium was drunk to treat arthritis, colds/flu, coughs, chest congestion, pneumonia, rheumatism, constipation. Boiling the decoction for a full day and then taking one teaspoon a day was good for colds and arthritis. To help heal cuts and scrapes the outer bark was burned and the ash used to sprinkle on cuts before bandaging, changing the bandage every other day (Wennekens 1985). It says that devil's club root can be made into a poultice by cleaning and crushing the root, soaking it in hot water, and then putting it on a wound to keep it from getting infected. The bark has also been chewed and applied right to the wound. Bone injuries were also treated by laying the inner side of the bark in strips next to the skin of the injured area, which reduces pain and swelling. It can also be made into a salve with spruce pitch and used on cuts/scrapes, and possibly shingles. To make the salve, dry and grind the inner bark, add the spruce pitch and infuse in olive oil.
In this same book a recipe for making a tea used by Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida is as follows: 1. Cut a few sticks 5-6 feet long. Cut into 18-inch lengths. 2. Scrape off thorns and outer grey bark. Peel off inner green bark. 3. Put 2 handfuls of green inner bark in pot. Cover with 2 gallons cold water. Boil, then simmer 3 hours. 4. To enrich, add 3 different sprouting trees about 8 inches long: spruce, cedar, hemlock. Put in pot, roots and all.
5. Alder bark may be added for color and taste. Dose: 1 cup three times per day.
In Janice Schofield's book, Discovering Wild Plants, she warns that devil's club lowers blood sugar levels. Diabetics should be aware and get medical advice before using it, because devil's club may lower insulin requirements.
Be safe and enjoy nature's bounty.
From my light to yours-
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WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
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