Smith started by researching ginseng, then switched to devil's club because of the plant's many traditional uses in Native American medicine as a remedy for everything from stomach aches to psoriasis to tuberculosis.
For more than three years, with grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation, Smith has experimented with methods for harvesting the plant's bark and roots. He is now pursuing a grant from the National Institutes of Health to assess the plant's effectiveness against tuberculosis.
Speeding Up the Weed's Growing Cycle
Each year, tuberculosis kills 1.3 million people in China, according to the World Health Organization. Smith has consulted with researchers in China who "think a Chinese patient is more likely to complete the treatment and continue drinking tea rather than taking pills," he says.
Previous studies have associated the anti-tubercular properties of devil's club with polyenes, pigment-producing molecules found in some plants, said Guido Pauli, a research associate professor at the Institute for Tuberculosis Research in Chicago. But other compounds may be responsible. "We are really open to looking at anything," Pauli said.
A touchy issue with devil's club is that some Native American groups may resent any appropriation of traditional medicine. Other groups may welcome a new cash crop.
At the Plant Materials Center, however, the immediate challenge is to find a way to speed up the weed's growing cycle to produce marketable quantities. In the wild, devil's club goes two winters before germinating. At the nursery, researchers are experimenting with techniques to halve the growing time.
Chesloknu Foods, a jams and jellies company operated by the Native Village of Seldovia, is helping Smith harvest devil's club. Chesloknu has been fighting the weed's incursion into its blueberry fields.
"The first comment around here was, 'Great, if someone wants to pay us for devil's club, that would be wonderful," said blueberry farmer Rod Hilts, manager of Chesloknu. "It's a very tough bush to work around, so we have some interest in thinning it out."
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