This summer I spent quite a bit of time with a plant known as Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) that grows wild in the northwest and up through the west coast of Canada to Alaska. If you have ever come across this plant you will never forget it. It grows upwards of 12 feet tall with a tall sharply thorned stalk and wide branching palmate leaves that are also lined with spiky spines. The stalks fall along the ground in snaky decumbent stems that criss cross each other before climbing up to the sky. In early summer, a raceme of greenish flowers bursts forth and then turns into a cluster of bright red berries. This is a big beast of a plant which inspires both awe and frustration depending on the person.
The name Oplopanax horridus can be divided up into three parts: oplo meaning armored, panax meaning ‘heal-all’ and horridus meaning fierce. So this plant literally means fiercely armored heal-all, an apt description.
When I think of the early white colonizers who came here in the 1800?s and first named it, I imagine that one of them grabbed a stalk in his hand and shouted out in pain before naming it a Devil. The sharp thorns are brittle and can break off and lodge in the skin where they easily fester and then can become infected. Certainly the early settlers must have hated the plant for that reason and also because it loves to group together in clannish thickets that are nearly impenetrable.
Though this plant was likely hated by early settlers, it has been universally admired by native nations all the way up the West Coast of the US and Canada. With names such as “Most Sacred”, devil’s club has long been used as almost a panacea and has been used commonly for healing lung and stomach complaints, arthritis, pain, sugar imbalances and diabetes, as well as for ritual and ceremonial purposes. The Kwakiutl have used the bark for steam baths as an analgesic and chewed the root for stomach pains. The Lummi have used a poultice of the bark on a woman’s breasts to reduce milk flow. The Makah have used it for arthritis. The Okanagan work with the plant as an expectorant for dry coughs and as a blood purifier. The Haisla have used it as a general tonic and the Gitxsan have used it for stomach ulcers and pain.
Along with its medicinal uses, the plant has been used by First Peoples for hunting and fishing. The wood has been made into fishing lures and the spiny stems have been used for spears for catching octopus and for bass fishing.
Devil’s Club is also considered a deeply important spiritual medicine for many Native nations. They use it for purification, to ward off curses, for supernatural protection, for strength, healing and for dancing between the worlds. It has a strong connection to protective medicine and numerous tribes such as the Bella Coola, Gitxsan, kwakiutl and Nitinaht have used in it that way. They see it as bestowing good luck, to help strengthen and initiate healers and shamans. The Haisla burn and char the bark and then use the ashes to paint their faces for ceremonial work. This is a plant that was seen entirely opposite to how white settlers saw it. For one it was a curse and for others it was perhaps the most important spiritual medicine.
This summer I decided to spend a lot of time in its company and really sit with it, observe, listen and get close (well as close as possible) to it. As I watched it over a period of time, I started to hear the story of this plant, learn its narrative and song. This is a plant that demands attention and care. One cannot walk brazenly into a thicket of Devil’s Club- best to tread carefully and guard oneself from the sharp thorns. I could see how white settlers, focused on building roads, homes and settlements would hate this plant. It is in the way, slows you down, stops you from rushing on ahead. In that way it is in some way a metaphor for the entirety of the colonization experience. Settlers rushed in here, killed and pushed out the indigenous denizens, quickly built a civilization and subdued the landscape with mono crop farms, highways and cities. There was no time for slowing down, paying close attention, breath or awareness. The land and its various obstructions such as Devil’s Club were an obstacle to overcome.
Thorns and Wounds: Bringing Trauma to Light
The thorns of Devil’s Club offer the potential for wounding, for the plant world to pierce the boundary of the human world. For settlers that thorn represented a potential danger but for native communities that intense thorniness presented its strength, the ability to protect and guard. It also presented the boundary between this world and the next- it has the ability to pierce the veil of normal human reality and allow entrance into transcendent realms. Indeed, if you sit with the plant long enough you can feel a presence that is quite startling, a sort of fierce power. My wife, who is not one to sit with plants too often, came along with me one day to hang out with the plants and became astounded at the feeling around D. club. She told me ‘I have never had the feeling before of being watched by a plant.’
After sitting with the plant for a long while one has the sense of the plant exploring your own wounds and depths. It seems to find where a person has experienced trauma and brings it to light. Sometimes this can be painful, especially if one is not prepared or does not want to see those painful experiences. It also seems to bring to light the places where we ignore, cover up and fly from this trauma, where we cover up our own pain with poor habits and addictions, where we hide.
As the plant burrows into our deepest recesses, it seems to be asking questions. I often hear the question “How are you walking?” from this plant. It seems to ask if we are avoiding and hiding from the pain, covering up and running. But ultimately its intentions seem quite lovely. It asks us to shift, to change, to no longer hide- to face that pain as a warrior with integrity, strength and grace- to stand tall.
Underneath that gruff and hard exterior is a deeply fierce ally that can support a person who has been worn down by trauma, anxiety and fear. ‘How are you walking?’ it says. ‘Can you stand upright and strong like me? Can you remember and nourish the sweet beautiful part of you that is whole and untouched by that pain and sorrow?’
Gathering and Making Medicine
Gathering this medicine is a powerful experience. Late in October I hiked to the hills of the Colombia River Gorge near Portland, Oregon with a good herbalist friend, Alexis Gandara. Stands of maples, elder, ash, douglas fir and hemlock spread out to the sky and a mix of salal, snowberry, false solomon’s seal and oregon grape played down below. Devil’s club loves riparian well drained areas and I found my first stand perched above a small stream. I thought that this would be the place to gather but I got a strong signal that this wasn’t right. The stand was too little, not strong enough, and the plant signaled me that a better stand would be behind me over a hill. Its hard to understand how I could have heard that communication but it came through as plain as day. I found a hidden path on a small slope behind me and wound my way for about 100 yards until I found them- a beautiful, large and strong stand of perhaps 80 Devil’s club mixed in with elder, wood sorrel and a downed hemlock with Artist’s conk mushroom dotting the rotting tree. This was it.
I waited until late October to harvest and while waiting I made some changes in my life to prepare for the harvest. I lived in Ecuador for a Summer and worked with Quichua peoples who traditionally do a ‘dieta’, a set of dietary and personal restrictions, in order to get closer to particular plants and learn their songs, or ‘icaros’. In this South American tradition, a diet becomes very limited and a person who embarks on this chooses to eat just a few staples such as rice and a bit of fish and manioc while isolating oneself in a jungle environment. Often the individual takes the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca at these times to grow closer to the plant. I felt no need to take ayahuasca but I felt the plant asking me to make changes in my life to prepare for gathering. It did not simply want me to make a tincture or dry the roots for physical medicine. It was asking me to literally change who I was, and part of that meant getting more silent, more mindful, to pay closer attention to what I ate, what I watched and studied, how I carried myself. Thats a lot to ask of a stubborn set in his ways guy who has never been particularly abstemious.
But I did shift, and changed how I ate and tried to avoid foods that I knew were making me feel more frazzled. So out with sugar, caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, and processed foods. I also started to limit what I took in through media. So much of what we take in can start to wear us down. We absorb the information and visual imagery into our brain and it begins to change us, sometimes not for the better. So I tried to be more careful and mindful, really considering how I lived my life.
And that went well for most of the summer until I fell off the wagon. I regularly visited Devil’s club but at some point I lost my way and I started to eat poorly. Stress overtook me and I became forgetful, not nourishing myself well. Usually I pay a small price for this but this time it seemed as if the stakes were higher. My life started to teeter off kilter. Friendships went south. Problems arose in my daily life. My stomach started to hurt- a lot. I began to worry that I had an ulcer. The pain would gnaw at me when I slept. This went on for weeks. I realized that the plant was sending me some very strong messages. When I undertook this walk I did not see that this plant would hold me to this decision to walk with it. I had heard stories of things going wrong when someone stepped away from a dieta that I needed to return to a better way of living. I returned to good habits and returned to visiting the plant more regularly.
The fascinating thing is that as soon as I returned to visiting the plant and committed to living in a better way, the stomach pain subsided…completely. Its pretty common for me to get a lot of physical healing from herbs when I take them as teas or tinctures- but its pretty darn uncommon for a plant to heal a physical illness without ever ingesting it. I felt great gratitude and awe for the healing power of this plant.
A few weeks later when the plant told me it was time I went and gathered the medicine. I made a few offerings and made some prayers of gratitude. The leaves had completely yellowed and many had fallen off. The process of gathering is challenging. Those thorny spines love to catch you and break off their brittle spines and burrow into your skin. Heavy gloves are key here. I then cut a few of the stalks at the very base and then cut these stalks into 2-3 foot long pieces. Then I used a sharp knife to remove the exterior bark and any thorns until the green inner bark is apparent. From there I then whittled off shavings of the root bark. The underside is yellow, a color often associated with the stomach and the Earth element in Chinese medicine. I chewed some of it while I worked and the bark is sweet, pungent and bitter. Its a really distinct flavor that is hard to describe. Skunky and potent. Then I used the shavings to make tincture and salve- and dry the roots for later decoctions. To tincture it I cut it up in small pieces at home and then added organic grain alcohol 1:2, 95%.
I often offer the tincture in minute ‘drop doses’ to clients that come to see me for counseling. Some of the details have been changed to protect client confidentiality. One of the first times I worked with Devil’s Club in my practice happened when a young woman came to my office who spoke in a quiet, restrained, almost halting voice. She appeared slow, distant and repressed. After a couple sessions that seemed to only visit the surface of her life, I offered her 2 drops of Devil’s Club. Within a few moments she began to talk about her life in a completely different way. She started to recall very painful events in her childhood when an older sister sexually abused her. Her voice changed at this time, became more fierce, forceful and real. She was able to connect to a feeling of deep grief and anger and started to discharge that emotion in my office. Over time, she was able to process this event and then consider how to contact and confront her sister. Through this depth work, she was able to come to a better understanding of her deepest wounds and work towards resolving them.
In another case, I worked with a woman who had been married for many years to a man who had been emotionally controlling and abusive, who had then left her for another woman. She was devastated and nearly suicidal and in our work together she began to take Devil’s Club regularly. Slowly she began to peel back the layers of her relationship and see how damaging he had been to her. At one point she went herself to visit the plant and became so overwhelmed by emotion and flooding memories that she had to pull away and ask for assistance from another plant (bleedingheart, dicentra formosa) to soften the intensity of the experience. In one final session with the plant, she visualized cutting the emotional cord to him and at that point felt completely able to separate and not be triggered by him emotionally anymore. She saw the plant as a great liberator and also as a plant that helped her rediscover her beauty and her own path as a healer in her own right.
Another interesting case happened when a young man came to me feeling as if he had been frazzled by life and the many demands placed on him. Family members often became angry at him for making decisions they didn’t like and he also felt pressure to act and conform in a certain way that felt inauthentic and out of integrity. He took 3 drops of tincture under his tongue and immediately had a vision of a bear. I hadn’t told him that Devil’s Club is also intimately associated with bears. They often eat the leaves and berries and I have heard one story of bears rolling around in Devil’s Club thickets as healing medicine after a battle. I asked her what the image of the Bear meant to him and he said that Bears are strong, fierce, true to themselves and don’t take shit. She felt that presence of Devil’s Club Bear medicine in her heart and stomach and I offered her a small bottle to take home to use when she felt like she needed that strength and feeling of protection and integrity.
The last case came to me recently. A young man had been going to school at a naturopathic school. He had become frustrated that the school was leaning too far towards trying to be associated with mainstream medicine and felt that the magical deeper wisdom of plant medicine was missing from his studies. He felt like he was not honoring his true calling and getting off track. In our counseling session Devil’s Club was speaking to me and I offered him one single drop under his tongue. He immediately felt calm and serene with a sense of himself walking and parting a tall grass field, feeling strong and true. He was able to reconnect to the magical sacred bond he had always felt with plants. I offered him some Devil’s Club oil that he could apply to himself when he was feeling like he was being taken off his true path.
I have seen amazing shifts in mood and powerful transformations when working with people and offering Devil’s Club. Often it is very helpful for people who are willing to dive more deeply into their core, to take a closer look at the places they have been wounded and are holding pain, and are covering up or running away in some way. For some the medicine can be strengthening, tonifying, and give a sense of power, purpose and integrity. But for others the medicine can be fierce, even shocking. I once went to a class with the herbalist Sean Donahue where he passed out Devil’s Club tincture and a young woman fell into deep sobbing. Sean skillfully offered her some wild cherry flower and she was able to become calmer and sit more easily with the medicine. One good friend told a story of feeling overwhelmed by the medicine and seeing “too much” and then going to bleeding heart to help soften and absorb the information more easily. This is strong and fierce medicine that is only for the right person at the right time.
Protection Tonic for the Stomach and Lungs
The plant is in the same family as American and Asian Ginseng (Araliaceae) and has similar adaptogenic compounds that bring strength, deep nourishment and resiliency. These compounds include a number of saponins that mimic the tonic ginsenosides found in American and Asian Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius and P. ginseng). Underneath the fierceness of this old beast is an incredible ability to strengthen. It feels like a very general tonic but because of my experiences and its sweetness and yellow color I relate the tonic effects of this plant strongly to strengthening the stomach and the belly. In traditional Japanese culture the energetic term for this area is the hara. Many traditional forms of sacred movement such as tai chi view the hara as the core part of the body, the reservoir of vital source energy. Most of the movements extend from this place and there is great emphasis on strengthening connection to the hara. As medicine it is powerful for helping to strengthen this core part of ourself. In many ways, trauma and stress impact the belly first, slowing and altering our digestion and absorption which then impacts our nervous and immune system and can lead to the breakdown in our health and vitality. Oplopanax helps us to restore our belly, slowly strengthen it so that we are able to walk stronger, taller, prouder.
It has a key connection to sugar imbalance and indigenous uses include it as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. I think this is an interesting connection because type 2 diabetes is almost entirely a disease due to a poor modern colonialist diet. The poor food we put in our belly damages the function of the pancreas until it can no longer produce insulin properly. Essentially it is another example of repairing the trauma that has occurred since settlers came. There is some thought that Oplopanax may lower high sugar levels but it seems more likely that this root is reparative and helpful in improving the metabolic pathways associated with the pancreas and improving its function.
Traditionally, Devil’s Club has also been used by indigenous folks to heal the lungs from conditions such as tuberculosis, bronchitis and long standing respiratory problems. If you look at its large palmate leaves that is a clue to its strength as a lung medicine. More leaf means more space to breathe in carbon dioxide and expire oxygen. Oplopanax acts as a respiratory stimulant and expectorant. In Chinese medicine the term for the protective energy controlled by the lungs that circulates around the body is wei qi. When our wei qi is poor then we are more likely to develop colds, flus, infection and chronic sickness. In many ways, Oplopanax acts as a lung and wei qi tonic, literally helping to protect us from pathogenic invasion.
On a deeper level, it also seems to protect us from supernatural and psychic onslaught, from those who would wish us harm or think ill of us. It helps us to stand strong and firm like the tall stalks of the plant itself. Protection work is especially important for those who work in the healing arts and are often confronted by trauma, sadness and pain. We often take on this pain because we are keenly sensitive to those around us. Protection, creating firm boundaries and standing tall is key to our emotional and physical health.
Thoughts on Harvest and Dosage
Generally, I would suggest not collecting this plant unless you form a strong relationship to it and then only very occasionally in an ethical manner. I gathered 4 out of perhaps 80 stalks. I won’t return to that stand to gather again. Up north in parts of Canada and
Alaska, Oplopanax grows much more freely and it is possible to gather a little more liberally. But because of its kinship with the other ginsengs it has already become excessively popularized and some are calling it Alaskan Ginseng or other terms to try and market it and sell it. I don’t think this is an herb that should be sold on a commercial level. Selling it at that level endangers this deeply important plant and we should be cautious of working with it unless we have very specific intentions with this medicine.
I like to take it in tea form by itself 1-2 tablespoons dried herb to a pint of water decocted down to one cup, and offer in small doses in tincture form for energetic work (2-4 drops). Larger doses of 15-30 drops up to three times a day can be used for a more gross medicinal effect.
Sitting with this plant has taught me a few other things about trauma and recovery. We live in a world where emotional distress, pain and suffering are treated primarily with medicines that we ingest. In the psychiatric model we take antidepressants, benzodiazapenes and major tranquilizers to suppress the pain that arises from trauma. And in the holistic world, we take vitamins, supplements and herbs to help calm and strengthen us.
But as I sat with Oplopanax I felt that there was something that the plant was asking of me. This plant likes to live in groupings and clans of tall rising plants, often connected by rhizome. They live as one organism, one plant, constantly working to gather sunlight and carbon and exchange that for oxygen in a beautiful dance of photosynthesis and gas exchange. There is constantly a give and take, a pulling in and a letting go. When we take medicine or go to a healer it is generally a one way street. We are asking for something to help us, change us, heal us.
But truly, plant medicines are asking more from us. They are asking for us to dance with them, to not only take but give as well. They are asking us what we can do, how we can give back. Even in the depths of our pain, our brokenness and despair, we can give back. Plants are asking for that from us. How can we honor and reciprocate? This may take the form of leaving a small offering when we gather plant medicine. This may mean activism and trying to rectify the traumas that we as humans inflict in the form of oppression, racism and ecological damage. It may mean giving back by “tithing” and financially supporting Earth based healing. It may mean simply honoring our own bodies as innately tied to the web of all plants and animals on this Earth.
As I sat with Oplopanax this summer, this plant taught me some of the deeper mystery of how our individual suffering from past trauma is interlinked as a collective global trauma in need of healing. And Devil’s Club teaches me that the road back involves slowing down, paying attention, honoring, giving space and then co-creating healing in a partnership model where both humans and plants work together in harmony. Ultimately we are trying to heal the primary traumatic rift of our disconnection from the natural world. When we slow down and listen to the plants, they are singing the songs that can help us to recover and come home.
References and Further Reading:
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.