Devil's Club: Friend or Foe?

Aug 28, 2015

By Lindsay Calkins, expedition guide, Wilderness Explorer

We don’t have poison oak; we don’t have poison ivy; we don’t have snakes; and we don’t have ticks…so what should we look out for when spending time in the temperate rain forest of Southeast Alaska?

That is one of the questions most often posed to the guide staff at the beginning of each week here on the Wilderness Explorer. The answer is always the same, watch out for Devil’s Club!

There is nothing worse than making some headway on a bushwhacking adventure, only to find that you must find a new route due to a dense thicket of spiny, prickly Devil’s Club.

Devil's Club

In Southeast Alaska, Devil’s Club is a common understory plant that grows in damp, well drained soils. It will grow very thick and dense in flood-plain areas of the forest, not uncommon along riverbeds where we walk along on guided hikes. With its vibrant green large maple-shaped leaves, it’s easy to spot. It’s a beautiful plant that makes the forest pop, however it’s the spiky toothed arms running along the underside of the leaves that lead to the main cause of concern. Getting poked by one of these thorns is not the most pleasant feeling in the world, and requires tweezers to pull the thorn out. That said, mild skin irritation is the worst of it, and guests don’t seem to run into problems too often.

On the bright side, Devil’s Club has a multitude of medicinal uses, initially discovered by the native Tlingit people.

Typically best harvested in the spring, it can be used for ailments from arthritis to fevers and the flu. The Tlingit would use it in a bath, a chew, powder, salve, steam or infusion. For general sickness, the bark could be used as a soak for those with pneumonia. Sores can be treated with a salve, and people were encouraged to chew the bark for general good health. In the same family as ginseng, Devil’s Club tea is reported to help the mind and body in times of stress, and create an overall well feeling. It is also known to help lower blood sugar and can be used to help aid diabetes.

I personally use a Devil’s Club salve that I purchased at a shop in Elfin Cove, locally made with olive oil and cottonwood. I slather it on rashes and skin irritations, as well as dry and cracked cuticles. I enjoy knowing that I am using a product that is locally harvested and produced.

Devil’s Club is an enchanting plant that is a staple in the forest, and medicine cabinet for the people of Southeast Alaska. While it can cause irritating wounds for those that unknowingly touch it, when handled with care, it is an incredibly powerful medicinal plant that plays an important role in the health care of the natives that first settled these lands.

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