Recently I had the privilege of working with a pacific northwestern plant called Devil’s Club, also known as oplopanax horridus. As both the common and Latin name suggest, it’s a bit of a tricky plant to deal with because of its fierce looking exterior. Its entire stalk and even the leaves are covered in devilish looking spines that will lodge themselves beneath the skin if you’re unlucky enough to get impaled. The fresh thorns contain bacteria and chemistries that cause some wounds to blister, and it’s this lovely feature that both prevents most people from ever harvesting it, and gives us clues to its medicine! Interestingly, the same infections it causes can be cured by the root bark itself, and modern research demonstrates that it also has the amazing ability to thwart tuberculosis and antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria such as the infamous MRSA. As the “panax” portion of the Latin name indicates, it comes from the ginseng family and has many similar adaptogenic qualities. It boosts energy metabolism, soothes the pain of arthritis, and regulates blood sugar, making it an effective medicine for type II diabetes.
Most of the coastal and interior First Nations who occupy the range of this medicine revere it with sacred respect. If you ever work with Devil’s Club in the wild, you’ll notice that its roots form a lattice beneath the peaty, wet understory it inhabits, and that the roots are thick and well established. This gives us a hint at the deep, interconnected medicine it offers us on emotional and spiritual levels. Those who take Devil’s Club find that it tends to regulate the root and solar plexus regions of our body (known esoterically as the 1st and 3rd chakras). It goes to the origin of past traumas and ‘unroots’ them from our psyche so that feelings of insecurity, lack of safety, and former attacks on our self-esteem become gradually absolved — a great helper for one’s journey in resolving the inner critic!
The traditional spiritual uses of this medicine relate to protection. Pieces of the root were carried on the person to promote safety, and important rituals were shrouded in Devil’s Club segments to ensure that undue forces did not invade. These lessons are carried into our psyche as we work with Devil’s Club: no matter what happens in the external world, we’re going to be okay, and we’re going to make it. Even though everything in nature is interconnected and we all depend on the web of life for survival, each individual is also granted the gift of sovereignty and personal lessons that he or she alone is here to work with. Devil’s Club helps to de-tangle what doesn’t serve us, while energizing our being for the important work ahead.
Transforming Devil’s Club into useable medicine is definitely a group project, and it makes a lot of sense given that the plants themselves do not exist in nature as individuals, but a tethered and tangled group. If a plant’s stem falls lopsided and hits the ground, it immediately begins the task of transforming its stem into adventitious roots which fuel the network and become new shoots. Even mature plants can become roots again, and this practical life cycle means that root, stem and aerial components are all merged into interchangeable components over the years. This tells us that Devil’s Club medicine affects us on all levels, as it is prepared to become what is needed to serve the healing process.
Handling the root bark with one’s bare hands ensures transdermal contact with its living essence, and during the processing its unique fragrance fills the room and becomes mildly intoxicating. A sense of energized mirth overtakes each person until there is an ambiance of warmth, laughter, and protected carefreeness. Worries and anxieties give way to courageous stamina, and whatever seemed to be bothersome before no longer seems like that big of a deal. The spirit of the plant encourages us to lighten up and begin to release even the deepest of wounds so that we can gradually and lovingly return to our grounded centre. As a friend aptly pointed out recently, this medicine helps us to “club our demons” so that we are no longer held back by the shadow.
One important note though… it takes some years for Devil’s Club to grow into mature plants so it’s important to harvest it with great care and respect. In my journeys around the Pacific Northwest I noticed that it tends to grow in somewhat isolated communal patches, and not in huge swaths. It’s not the kind of plant that can be sustainably harvested wholesale, so only take what you need. Like Goldenseal, it’s a slow growing medicine that could easily be threatened with overharvesting. Just as Devil’s Club is a protective medicine, we must also show it the same kind of protection!