Wonder Weed: Can Devil's Club Beat TB, Other Ills?

September 5, 2003

In Alaska, the locals call it devil's club—a spiky plant mostly known for spoiling hikes and crowding out blueberry patches. Even the weed's Latin name sounds ominous: Oplopanax horridus.

The plant grows 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters) tall and is covered with thorns up to an inch (2.5 centimeters) long.

"Even the leaves have little-bitty thorns," said Peggy Hunt, an agronomist at the Native Plant Nursery in Palmer, Alaska. "They go through your skin. You wear jeans, they still go through those jeans. And the thorns will fester. It's like getting a splinter. You really have to dig them out."

Devil's club is also abundant, infesting at least 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) throughout the state, according to agronomists' estimates. The range of devil's club extends to California.

"For me, it's like a weed, a nuisance," Hunt said. "I have a tire swing for my daughter, and every year I'm out there hacking this plant away, because it just takes over."

So why is Hunt helping to grow more of the stuff? She and other plant ecologists see potential among the thorns. Devil's club may find a use as a natural "fence"—or as a resource for a treatment for tuberculosis adapted from Native American folk medicine.

The plant's bad reputation may be its best-selling point. When the state division of parks was looking for a natural barrier to keep visitors from wandering off trails, "devil's club was the first plant I thought of," said Stoney Wright, a plant ecologist and manager of the Alaska Plant Materials Center, which operates the nursery.

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"By simply planting something that was native and common to the area, you could in essence put up a barbed wire fence," Wright said. "There are very few people—other than tourists from the Lower 48—who would venture into devil's club."

Landscape architects have shown interest in devil's club. In late summer and fall the plant displays brilliant red berries.

"I could think of certain situations where devil's club would be very attractive next to a building," Wright said. "It has a very good color. It has that bright red fruit on it."

Devil's club may also be a source of medicine, according to David C. Smith, a former city manager in Seldovia, Alaska, and founder, in 1998, of Alaska Green Gold in Anchorage, a company that evaluates the marketability of Alaskan medicinal plants in China.

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