Many plants throughout the Pacific Northwest have exquisite compounds to ward off fungal and bacterial infections. There may be none stronger than devil's club (Oplopanax horridus).

Devil's club is a native and a rather prehistoric-looking single-stemmed plant covered head-to-toe in armor with spines three quarters of an inch long on its stem, leaf base and leaves. Contact with the spines will cause severe skin irritation. The plant can grow 20 feet high with 14-inch leaves resembling a big leaf maple. It has small whitish flowers and reproduces from bright red berries or root layering, a natural form of clonal propagation.

Devil's club occurs throughout the Pacific Northwest on moist, but well-drained, rich forested ecosystems. It's a member of the same family as Asian and Siberian ginseng, but does not contain similar ginsenosides or the active compounds as its cousins do. Devil's club does, however, have potent properties to successfully fight antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial and antimycobacterial agents. That's why it is being tested to combat Esherichia coli, Staphyloccus aureus and Bacillius subtilis.

Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest have known about these and other properties for thousands of years. They revere this plant, and for good reason, for both medicinal and spiritual applications. In fact, they use it to treat 34 different physical ailments including broken bones, type II diabetes and cancers. The inner stem bark is most commonly used by native Americans. Whole stems, berries, leaves and roots contain active compounds to boost the human immune system.

Supernatural protection

Native Americans believe that devil's club protects against supernatural entities, epidemics and evil influences. During certain ceremonies the extract of the red berries is painted on shamans' faces. It is said to give them supernatural powers.

Devil's club has been illegally marketed as Alaskan ginseng. Commercially available tinctures, teas and capsules that contain devil's club extract are harvested from roots. Some producers unfortunately are trying to take advantage of false ginseng properties, which only come from roots.

Devil's club is harvested from wild plants. It is difficult to cultivate and presently there is no commercial cultivation of the plant. Harvesting roots from wild stock for commercial use kills plants and is not sustainable.

Currently devil's club is being tested for treatment of tuberculosis and AIDS. Its many medicinal properties make it an exciting opportunity to offer hope to those afflicted with such diseases.

Land managers must be careful not to over-harvest this plant. Pacific Northwest Native Americans should be consulted on the cultural significance, ethical harvesting methods, applications, and on active pharmacological compounds of this plant.

Wild forests are made up of intricate and intimate webs of life. Devil's club is proof that our diverse Pacific Northwest temperate rain forests contain more than just big, old trees.