Devil's club (Oplopanax horridus)
by Mel Kasting
If we parse this striking plant’s latin name into three segments, we find ‘opolo’ meaning armored, ‘panax’ meaning heal-all, and ‘horridus’ meaning to stand on end, fiercely. So this plant literally means fiercely armored heal-all; an apt description.
The first time I saw Devil’s club, I was on a field trip with the Columbines School of Botanical Studies. We had been hiking along an incline and down below, in the moist bellows where two hills met, stood a large patch quietly looming over the smaller ground cover plants. I remember feeling awed by its prehistoric appearance. And a little timid, like I was about to meet someone I have looked up to for years. Talk about presence.
Genus and Species: Oplopanax horridus
Common names: Devil’s Club, Devil’s Walking Stick, Alaskan Ginseng
Description/Habitat: Devil’s club is a large shrub native to the wet, old growth coniferous forests in the pacific-northwest, British Columbia, and south-central Alaska. There are also small scattered populations on the islands around Lake Superior and in Ontario.
It grows from 3-10 feet tall, with many spines along the stems, petioles, and major leaf veins. The leaves are large and palmately lobed. The flowers are small and whitish, borne in pyramidal clusters, and ripen to shiny falttened, bright red berries.
Energetics: Warming (slightly), sweet, bitter
Properties: Hypoglycemic, adaptogenic, expectorant, respiratory stimulant, aromatic bitter, amphoteric
Taste: Bitter, acrid (slightly), sweet
Parts Used: Root and lower stem bark
Tissue States: Cold stagnation, atrophy, generally deficient
Key Uses: Insulin resistance, Type 2 Diabetes, late onset hypoglycemia (in small doses), PCOS and other blood sugar related hormone dysregulation, rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune dis-function (Michael Moore), stress induced overeaters, as an expectorant for thick mucus, short term for sugar cravings.
History and Ethnobotany: Devil’s club has a long history of use as a decoction in the Native American tribes of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest for rheumatism and arthritis, stomach and digestive ailments, tuberculosis, colds, skin disorders, toothaches and diabetes. The berries are poisonous if eaten but were used by the Haida tribe applied topically for lice.
Ritual huts were constructed of Devil’s Club spiny stems for Shamans to prepare for important work and to warn away intruders. It was also attributed to be able to bring about supernatural powers and was used as a power plant for protection, cleansing, and purification, usually by being worn.
Clinical Uses: Devil’s club is useful for treating blood sugar issues of all kinds. I find it especially indicated for women dealing with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and for individuals suffering from chronic stress and accompanying overeating (in smaller doses).
In drop doses for individuals who have a hard time setting boundaries, either physical or emotional, and even more specifically for sexual trauma manifesting in unwanted promiscuity. Insecurity and timidity with a lack of grounding.
Michael Moore suggests it for clients with “elevated blood lipids, moderately high blood pressure, and early signs of adult onset, insulin-resistant diabetes.” He also used it often in the flare-up stages of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders.
It seems to have an amphoteric effect on the blood sugar in small doses, although I found very few people to be using it this way. Kiva Rose says that it’s good for late afternoon blood sugar slumps with shakiness and nausea and I have found that to be clinically useful for clients to take their largest dose around 2 – 4PM
It is also a powerful respiratory stimulant and expectorant…but because this plant is not widely distributed, grows very slowly, and because we have a plentiful materia medica of more common expectorants to choose from, I would caution against using it in this way unless it’s use is also indicated for autoimmune issues and/or blood sugar regulation.
Constituents: Nerolidol, torreyol, dodinene, bulnesol, dodecenol, cadenene, cedrol, araliasides, and varied panaxosides. Four polyynes, falcarinol, oplopandiol, acetateoplopandiol and falcarindiol are attributed to the herb’s antimycobacterial properties. There has been no research done as to the specific antidiabetic constituents in Devil’s club.
Dosage and Method of Delivery: Devil’s club was traditionally used as a decoction. It is also useful as a standard 1:5 tincture in 60% alcohol. 2 droppers three times a day for blood sugar regulation. 10 drops three times a day for its amphoteric properties, and 3-5 drops as needed for energetic uses.
Cautions and Contraindications: Take care while harvesting this plant. Punctures from the spines may raise painful, red, pus-filled eruptions. Berries are poisonous.
No research has been done on the safety of this herb internally during pregnancy and breastfeeding so avoidance is suggested. Contraindicated in initial stages of autoimmune disorders. In addition, careful monitoring of blood sugar is suggested in persons with hyperglycemia, insulin resistance and diabetes using Devil’s club, as it may change the effects of insulin in the body.
Moore, Michael. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe, NM. Red Crane Books, Inc.
Vogel, J. Virgil. 1970. American Indian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division.
Howie Brounstein. Personal Communication. 2012
Bone, Kerry & Mills, Simon. 2013. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Second Edition. Churchill, Livingston, Elsevier Ltd.