Saturday, July 28, 2007

Devil's Club...

...a seemingly wicked little forest friend.

Devil's Club (Oplopanax Horridus) is a large shrub native to the northeast Pacific Ocean seaboard including the Pacific Northwest and reaching up into Alaska.

In Washington State it's normally found in large quantities along the floors of mountain drainages in the dense, temperate rain forests of the young coastal mountains, the Olympic Peninsula and the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Given the ideal growing conditions found at those locations, i.e. dense deciduous and conifer overstories and damp, rich soils the shrub will reach heights of 15 feet or more and will grow in huge seemingly communal "patches" making much of the forest in those areas impenetrable... unless you're insane or armored with a good hat, thick leather gloves, chaps, long sleeves and a very sharp machete.

Devil's club, affectionately referred to by some as "mountain cactus" or "Alaskan Ginseng" isn't all that hiker friendly.

From a distance the plant itself appears... errr, delicate.

It's tall, thick stalks curl outward and upward from the ground. As they continue to grow their many branches shoot for the sky in all directions.

The huge, innocent, delicate leaves invite the uninformed forest visitor to take a closer look. However be careful, the veins of these huge leaves are covered with spines top and bottom. Sinister, wicked, vicious little spines... brittle as all get out and filled with a chemical type of spine that, when embedded and broken off under your skin definitely will make you wish you were somewhere else doing something else rather than dealing with this particular shrub.

It's not so much the burning of the chemical that becomes the problem after getting in the shrub's way. Nope it's that darned prolonged itching, festering and burning of the spine itself as your body resists the invading, severed spear while trying to push it back out from under your skin in the days, weeks or months that follow... depending upon how intimate you got with the shrub.

I've had friends (and relatives) who have had their gloves "stapled" to their hands because they've reached out and grabbed the shrub's stalks or branches (the wrong thing) to slow them down as they tumbled or slid downslope through a grove of Devil's Club. Now that's quite a bit more than that annoyance you'll get when you encounter nettles or thistles.

The sight of a clenched, stapled glove and fist isn't a pretty sight for anyone involved... it's memorable but it's not pretty!

Either way, empathy reins!

However, in a morbid sort of way it can be a humorous sight if you're trying to put a humorous spin on things. It's certainly something to chat about around the campfire or to revisit as a "war story" over the years... after the trauma wears off. A good chat, a fun laugh, a memorable moment to be revisited in chatter but never again to be repeated in life.

I should caution everyone it's only humorous AT THE TIME if it isn't you trying to peel your glove off of your infested hand. So, reserve your laughter for a later date. Tend to the person in need of assistance at the time of the "encounter".

Laugh later.

Devil's Club has particularly delicate little flowers found hidden amongst it's leaves and stalks in the spring and eventually generates clusters of small, bright red berries in the late summer and early fall.

During this "growing season"... spring flowers to fall berries... the plant itself, all parts of the plant is particularly toxic. Hence, the discussion suggests that an invasive little prick from one of those brittle, little spines during this particular "growing season" is a bit more painful than those encountered in the "off season"... if that's possible.

It's been my unfortunate experience over the years that suggests those little spine "invasions" are as equally intense no matter what the season is...

The berries are toxic. The bark's toxic, the flowers are toxic... the whole plant is toxic.

So, what brings me to the point of writing about Devil's Club? Well... it's that time of year. As I drive through my office in the Pacific Northwest I take in the sights along the way... and while I'm there.

I've seen and dealt with Devil's Club all of my life here in Washington State. Not every day but a lot! I'll most likely be dealing with it for quite awhile longer too. It's not going to go away. But, I've learned some things about this Mountain Cactus... this Alaskan Ginseng.

I've learned that Devil's Club has a far less sinister side to it as well. It's a plant revered by the native people of this particular area. It's known to have healing and spiritual powers and is still used in particular tribal rituals throughout the region.

The healing qualities of the plant includes treatment of diabetes, fever and upset stomachs. Here's a great article on the shrub and it's uses.

The bottom line is this... Devil's Club is to be respected. Respected for it's attributes, respected for it's healing powers and respected for it's natural defenses.

People actually harvest Devil's Club after the berries and leaves fall and before the flowering begins. The stalks are severed, the spines and bark peeled and the cambium scraped to be dried and made into teas, powders for salves, etc.

Just when we think we've found the most sinister plant in the world we learn it's not at all as bad as we thought it was.

Isn't that the way life is?


Angela said...

WOW! not only did I learn a lot, but you have that wonderful way of making me look deeper into the meaning. The last line in particular makes me think of Fathers,Cousins,Brothers.... So in other words, There is more there than meets the eye, or in the case of Devils Club, More than meets the poor stapled gloved hand!

here is all you need said...

good nature