It is an attractive plant; large, maple-like leaves surround a tall flower spike, which later develops into a cluster of the reddest of red berries. In its favoured habitat, the dense rainforests of the We(s)t Coast, they add a welcome spot of colour in the fall and winter.
Devil's Club, Cougar Creek canyon
Unripe Devil's Club berries.
Its other features are not quite so welcome. It's covered in ferocious spines, up to an inch long; spines that break off with a mere touch, that dig deep into the unwary hand and fester there.
Spines on the main stem, and on the leaf stalks, too.
On a flower stalk. Laden with toxin.
Even on the leaves, top and bottom.
Various parts of the plant were used by BC's native peoples as medicine, or to prevent attack from evil entities. (This last, by sympathetic magic ; one dangerous thing scares off another, or its converse; something so bad must also have an equally good effect.) It it edible, just barely; the tips of the plant in the early spring can be eaten in small quantities. Otherwise, it proves toxic, except in medicinal doses. (And even then, caution is needed.)
I was bushwhacking through a wet forest in the Bella Coola valley, years ago. The ground was littered with fallen trees, rotten stumps on top of rotten stumps, thick cushions of slippery moss, all bound together with salmonberry canes. It was slow going, and when possible, I walked above it all, using more recently fallen trees as bridges, and holding on to cedar saplings and salmonberries for support. (Salmonberry has spines, too, but they're short and soft up near the top of the plant. )
I was too high to see the stalks, and mistook a Devil's Club leaf for a harmless thimbleberry.
See, (and this is the worst thing about Devil's Club) the two plants are twins:
- They grow in the same habitat; moist banks, rainforest, stream banks.
- They grow to about the same height: anywhere from 1.5 metres to 3 metres.
- The leaves of both are large and spread out horizontally to catch the light.
- They both have white flowers and red berries.
- The leaves look alike at first glance.
These are thimbleberry leaves. Photo from nwplants.com.
And these are Devil's Club. Photo from Sierra Club.
Thimbleberry stalks, stems and leaves are always spineless.
- The leaves are even equally soft-looking. Thimbleberry leaves are soft, absorbent, and flexible, and have been traditionally used for wrapping foods or holding a serving of berries. They can pad a backpack to protect your harvest of mushrooms, roll up to make an emergency drinking cup, or serve as a hat in a sudden rainshower. And if you're ever caught in the bush without TP, they work for that, too. Try that with Devil's Club leaves! Or rather, don't.
And everything they say about Devil's Club spines is true. My hand swelled up, the spines buried themselves and festered. It hurt! For a long time. And I never forgot the lesson.
One other thing; BC's native peoples say that bears eat the berries.
"The Tlingit thought bears chewed the roots to soothe their battle wounds. The Bella Coola thought that bears ate the unpalatable fruits (known to them as "grizzly's berries") and used the thorny branches as bedding." From ZooScape.
Of course, grizzly bears (Ursus horribilis; it's somehow appropriate that they would eat O. horridus.) have fur so thick that Devil's Club spines could never reach the skin.