Devils Club grows all over the BC coastal region, It grows best in wet shaded areas and the coast has plenty of wet shaded areas.
Its maple-shaped leaves resemble thimbleberry leaves but up close the spines make identification simple. It is found all over the Pacific Northwest and quite often forms dense thickets with stems over 3 meters tall. It spreads mostly by the stems falling to the ground and taking root. In the spring it has a white flower cluster that matures into a lovely red berry cluster.
The berries are poisonous, but first people have been using them for generations to kill lice by mashing them up and applying the paste to the hair. This also treats dandruff and makes the hair soft and shiny, but avoid getting the mashed berries in your mouth, or you could experience some acute vomiting. Do not get into your eyes as well, it will burn.
The stems and roots are the primary medicinal part and both can be used, but the roots are more concentrated and easier to use since the roots don’t have the spines and are easier to peel. The best medicine is the dried inner bark which can be brewed into a tea or made into a tincture. It also works as a great spring tonic. The active constituents may be saponins and substances with insulin-like activity, but research is still ongoing to identify these medicinal components. It has been called one of the most valuable medicinal plants native to the Pacific Northwest.
Native Americans have used it to treat acute & chronic disorders, as well as a protective charm, I remember my dad would always place a piece above our front door to keep bad spirits out.
For rheumatism, the tea was drunk and also applied to the painful joints. A poultice of the root bark was applied to a nursing mother’s breasts to stop excessive flow after weaning. An eyewash of the tea was used to treat cataracts.
It has also been used in herbal steam baths for treating general body pain. The burnt stems mixed with oil make a salve for swellings. The root bark boiled in oil and used to treat psoriasis worked better than hydrocortisone in studies. My dad would tell me to harvest this plant during the time of the full moon, he said to gather last year’s portion of growth, scrape off the outer bark and peel the inner bark off, dry it and mix with a cream, it will cure most skin ailments including athletes foot, psoriasis, and acne.
Like all the ginsengs it is an adaptogen, balancing the stress response and stabilizing the body. Tlingit medicine men undergo solitary initiations in the wilderness fasting and only drinking Devil’s club tea. Haida hunters also use the tea as a sweat lodge additive. The inner bark is dried and mixed with a cream to treat arthritis as well as other infliction’s. Truly one of the great plants of the Pacific Northwest.