Devils Club
Answered by: Richard Alan Miller
Question from: Grant and Susan
Posted on: March 3, 1999

We are looking for information about harvesting, processing, and marketing devils club. We live in the Robson Valley in British Columbia, where devils club is abundant. Any contacts or information that you can forward to us would be greatly appreciated.

I have harvested and sold Devil’s Club root since 1976, when I first thought it might be a possible substitute for the more expensive Ginsengs. However, this was in error, due to the actual chemistries involved.

The first songs about Devil’s Club root originate from an almost forgotten era of the unrecorded past when a Tlingit of the Kake tribe observed two bears attempting to soothe their battle wounds by chewing the root. Since that time, this plant has been extensively used from Yakutat, Alaska to Neah Bay, Washington.

The modern medical world has been interested in Devil’s club root since the middle thirties due to the discovery of the presence of an insulin-like substance in the plant. Some doctors announced surprising results in treatment of diabetes with extraction of Devil’s Club roots. This extract seems to have potent hypoglycemic properties, per "Alaska Medicine," Vol. 8 No. 2; June, 1966.

The root contains ginsengic flavanoids only, and has often used as an ingredient for products which want a "Ginseng"-like flavor. When a product wants to advertise the presence of Ginseng, smaller quantities of Ginseng can be used in combination with it as it has the bitter taste of Ginseng. It does not, however, contain panax acid or related chemistries associated with the pharmaceutical action from Ginseng.

There are, however, possible undeveloped markets for this crop. The Meskwakis Indians, were known to concoct a special love potion with these harvests, combining it with mica, snake meat, gelatin, and some wild Columbine herb. A young girl of the tribe would use the mixture to find a husband by feeding it to an unsuspecting male.

Some Indians in Puget Sound drank a brew made from Devil’s Club, peeling off bark and thorns, to ward off a cold or ease the effects of rheumatism. The powder of the dried bark may have been used as a deodorant, as well as for a baby talc. Some Indians have even combined Devil’s Club root with Prince’s Pine herb and Cascara bark, drinking the resulting brew for tuberculosis.

The Skagit Indians drank Devil’s Club tea to reestablish regular menstrual flow after childbirth. The Lummi cut the thorns off and lay the bark on a woman’s breast to stop excessive flow of milk. The superstition surrounding this root has become almost magical with most Coastal tribes today.

The Klalam Indians of Puget Sound, considered to be very accomplished fishermen, had a unique use of Devil’s Club. They would cut a peeled stick of the plant into small pieces and then in some manner wrap their fishing lines about them, throwing in their weighted lines, and when the line reached bottom and went slack, the bright little bits of peeled Devil’s Club would go spinning towards the surface and the fish would follow.

Despite the fact that Devil’s Club is a difficult, dangerous plant to handle, collecting the roots and shoots is easy. Near the bottom of the stalk or just below the moss surface, the spines disappear. Tug upward on the root and it will tear through the moss for several feet, exposing the unguarded portion and the several young shoots.

These shoots are easy to snap off the main root. The shoots remain edible until the first traces of the yellow spines appear. Lightly boil them in salted water and they will retain a tender yet crisp character. Peel the tough, brownish-yellow skin from the roots, which can be chewed for their flavor.

Devil’s club root grows from a rhizome. Harvesting the central roots generates further growth in the new rootlets which are left in the ground. In most regions, devil’s club actually need to be thinned for travel. It can get quite dense.

As it stands today, there are very few buyers for Devil’s Club root. The options on how to approach developing this market are quite broad. As a new crop, it has similar opportunities as the new Brazilian herb "Pau d’arco" (Tabebuia altissima). The first question to be asked is where should one begin in developing a new market? You need to begin by determining what form of marketing you wish to enter? This could include bulk wholesale, retail (processed), or as a cottage industry.

Current buyers include smaller tincture manufacturers who specialize in Regional botanicals, like Eclectic Institute (Portland). These buyers will only purchase smaller quantities in the 500-lb. range, leaving no real future for the crop as a base income for a wildcrafter. Price range from $2.50/lb. up, but again, the total volumes sold to these types of manufacturers is probably less than 4,000 lbs. annually for the entire marketplace.

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