The Good Devil in the Northwest Forest
By Bob Quinn
It is important in herbal medicine, and in life in general, to look beyond first impressions. Some plants are immediately attractive to the eye and/or nose. Lemon balm and sage come to mind as examples of plants that win one over immediately. Other plants are more the beast than the beauty. But like the story of The Beauty and the Beast in which the beast has a unique virtue to offer, if we go beyond first impressions with plants we often find a treasure of healing virtue. Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum) is in this category.
Anyone who has walked in the Northwest woods has likely encountered this unique plant. Devil’s club is a deciduous understory shrub with large maple-like leaves. From the ground up to the leaves the plant is covered with nearly inch-long spines. These spines are capable of causing severe skin irritation, so one has to approach the plant with a measure of respect. One immediately understands where the species name horridus comes from. It looks horrid and horrible.
Along the line of looking beyond first impressions I can relate one encounter with devil’s club. As I processed one Oplopanax harvest at home cutting the roots into smaller pieces, I ripped open the top of my left index finger. It was extraordinarily painful for such a tiny cut and bled like the dickens. At the time I was in acupuncture college, and this injury presented a problem. In the Japanese style I practice the left index finger is the preferred digit for locating acupuncture points. I feared I would lose sensitivity in this finger from the scarring and that it would hamper my career. As it turns out, just the opposite occurred. The tip of that finger is now much more sensitive than it had been. I consider this a sort of backhanded gift of devil’s club.
In the spring of 1988 I undertook a half-year apprenticeship with wildcrafter Howie Brounstein. Howie’s opinion was that devil’s club is our only true Northwest tonic. To the Chinese, tonic herbs over time strengthen and rebuild a depleted body, whether weakened by old age or illness. The changes are subtle—after a few weeks one notices that one is sleeping more soundly and waking more rested. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is the classic example of a tonic substance. Indeed its Latin genus name, Panax, comes from the same root as our word panacea, which means “cure all”. We see this same panax in Oplopanax, indicating that devil’s club too is seen as having broad restorative powers.
I once had an herb instructor with a curious teaching technique. She would pass around unlabeled bottles of the liquid extract of a given herb and instruct everyone to take just a few drops on the tongue and then sit quietly with the impressions that came. When she did this with devil’s club, the unanimity of response was astounding. Everyone in the room perceived the herb as warrior-like, powerful, protective, shielding and so on. As it happens these are apt descriptions for some of the traditional uses of Oplopanax. For the native groups in the growing range of devil’s club this plant was their most significant green ally. Ethnobotanists have catalogued some 34 traditional uses for this plant. Some of these uses were medical and some were spiritual. As many in the classroom tasting experiment perceived, devil’s club was seen as a strong protector against witches, spiritual entities and epidemics.
What are the traditional uses for which there is some scientific substantiation? Research has revealed devil’s club’s antifungal, antibacterial, antimycobacterial and antiviral properties. It is a respiratory stimulant and expectorant, helpful in eczema and worth considering in various types of autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. It is worth noting that many medical authorities suspect a strong autoimmune component in our epidemic of type II diabetes, which is another condition for which devil’s club can often help. It is sad to realize that the same native groups that valued the use of devil’s club are being hard-hit by TB and diabetes, two diseases for which this plant can offer some assistance.
Devil’s club is a powerful plant. Do not self-treat for any of the conditions discussed in this piece; they are all serious diseases. My goal here is educational, not medical. When you next pass by this plant on the hiking trail I hope you will see it with new eyes and appreciate the important role it played in the lives of Northwest Native American tribes.
*None of the information in this column should be understood to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Readers are encouraged to discuss their health concerns with appropriate medical providers.
Bob Quinn practices acupuncture, Sotai, Thai massage and herbal medicine in NE Portland at Windows of the Sky Clinic. He can be reached at [email protected]