The Last Frontier

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Alaska Ginseng (Devil's Club)


Devil's Club Buds
Buds of Alaska Ginseng, also known as Devil's Club
Echinopanax Horridum, more commonly known as Devil's Club, is in the Oriental Ginseng family. It is commonly found throughout Alaska, and therefore also known as Alaskan Ginseng. Most people are surprised that a plant with such an intimidating appearance has so many culinary and medicinal uses. This amazing, as well as beautiful plant is quickly becoming one of my favorites. (I know it doesn't look so beautiful now, but when the leaves are huge and the inedible red berries form above, it is lovely.)

Thanks to its sharp spines, Devil's Club is one of the easiest plants to identify at all stages of growth. If you've ever walked through the woods of Alaska or the Pacific Northwest, chances are you've seen, or been "attacked" by Devil's Club. If you happen to get stuck by one of the thorns, try to pull it out without leaving any broken off under your skin. Then make a poultice from a small piece of Devil's Club leaf and rub into the painful spot. It seems ironic that the "cure" is in the same plant that causes the pain and inflammation. The same is true of Stinging Nettle. I have tried this with both plants.

The parts of the plant that are used are the new buds and the root bark. The buds are mostly used in the kitchen, while the root bark has the medicinal properties. We began collecting Devil's Club buds a few weeks ago, and last week we dug some roots of the plants that we needed to clear from our yard. Within a quarter mile of our cabin are acres and acres of of Alaska Ginseng. The bark peels easily from the root.

Medicinal Uses of Devil's Club

Digging Devil's Club Root
Digging Devil's Club Root for the bark.

Because Devil's Club belongs to the Oriental Ginseng family, its uses are similar, and lab tests have shown no toxicity. However, as with any plant you have not tried before, proceed with caution. Eat only a very small amount (just a taste) at first, wait a day or so, and then work up slowly.

Colds, Pain and Bug Bites

Diggig Devil's Club Roots
Pieces of Devil's Club Root

It has been used often for the prevention and treatment of colds and other illnesses, and is said to be very helpful for sore muscles and the pain of arthritis. I don't have arthritis, so I haven't tried it for that. It appears to have wonderful anti-inflammatory properties, and also reduces the pain and swelling from bee stings and insect bites. My boys love playing with bees, and just accept the consequence of frequent stings. Fortunately, when the bees are out the Chickweed is abundant. (More about that in another post.) Since Chickweed is much easier to gather for an emergency bee sting than Devil's Club root, that's what they grab first.

Devil's Club Root
Pile of Devil's Club root dug from our yard

I'm soaking some of the Devil's Club root bark in olive oil now and will make a salve to keep on hand (as well homemade soap with the infused oil, and dried root bark for tea and tincture). I think it would be wonderful mixed with Comfrey root, which I grow in my herb garden. Comfrey's nickname is "Boneknit" because of its amazing ability to heal broken bones. I have used it in my family several times and am a strong believer! It is equally impressive in healing soft tissue. With little boys, I use it all the time for bumps, bruises and scrapes. But, Comfrey is not particularly helpful for pain. That's why I think Devil's Club and Comfrey mixed together would make an excellent salve to keep on the shelf for when one of my boys comes in with a scraped knee or a bump on the head after crashing his sled into a tree (that happens more often that I care to think about).

Lowered Blood Sugar and Weight Loss?

Devil's Club Root Bark
Peeled Devil's Club Root.
The root barkis the part used.

There have been reports of Devil's Club stabilizing blood sugar and reducing the need for insulin in diabetics. I find it interesting that Chickweed (like Devil's Club in it's use for bee stings and bug bites) also helps stabilize blood sugar. I have quite a sweet tooth. When I drink a little Chickweed tea or take a spoonful of the tincture daily, I no longer crave sweets. And if I do eat sweets while I'm using Chickweed, I don't have the blood sugar fluctuations that I usually feel. Normally, if I eat sweets at night, by morning my blood sugar is very low and I have an awful headache. When I drink Chickweed tea daily, that doesn't happen.

Another plus is that when I first started taking Chickweed, I lost 5 pounds the first two weeks although my diet had not changed! That was certainly a welcome "side effect"! :) I have since read that it helps metabolize fats, as well as carbohydrates, although I have not read any specific studies. I wonder if Devil's Club root does the same. I suspect it does.

Culinary Uses of Devil's Club

Drying Devil's Club Buds
Drying Devil's Club buds for the winter.

Even the new buds of Devil's Club have spines, but they are soft. Rub in the direction they grow and you will see what I mean. If it hurts to pick them then they are too old to eat. The buds are not an ideal trail snack "as is", however, if the spines are really soft, the buds can be eaten raw.

Devil's Club buds taste a little like celery, only not as sweet. I like to use them fresh, as well as dehydrated as I would use celery. In one of the pictures you can see the buds that I pulled apart and placed on the shelves of the non-electric food dehydrator.

Devil's Club
Plate of deep fried Devil's Club Buds, along with
Batter Fried Wild Chives. Delicious!

Once cooked, the flavor changes and doesn't quite keep that celery-like flavor, although it is still delicious. It's hard to describe because it has a taste all its own. We love this time of year when they are a special treat for us. We especially enjoy the buds chopped in egg and potato dishes. When I want to keep the celery flavor in cooked foods, I prefer to use Cow Parsnip stems. Since we live so remote, I can't get to the store to purchase celery, and it doesn't grow well here. I much prefer to use wild plants whenever I can!

In the last picture, you see a plate full of batter fried Devil's Club buds and Wild Chives. Our cultivated chives don't hold a candle to the wild ones. I've never measured, but I usually chop a large handful or two into batter, and either fry them up alone or add them to the batter with Fiddleheads or Devil's Club buds.


  1. Great article. You've truly investigated the uses of this plant!

    I've just heard about it my self.

    I want to learn more about wild edibles (just wrote an article on the uses of the various parts of the pine tree)

    I'll share this article with others on my site


  2. Really great information in your article - thank you. How long can you store the balm of gilead buds in the freezer? I have harvested devils' club root but never the buds - am interested in checking that out. I will take a trip to the woods this weekend and see if our devil's club
    plants are budding yet.
    Have a wonderful day!

  3. We live in Pennsylvania. Do you think it would grow here? I grow comfry quite easily. My husband has RA and does not respond to opiate based pain med so we are always looking for anti-inflammatory homeopathic ideas

  4. Thanks for the info on chickweed. That was new to me. Also enjoyed reading your methods for using Black cottonwood buds. This is a favorite of mine. I've kept a little clay jar with buds in it on the sill above the sink for 15 years... and it still gives off a whiff of that delightful odor.. and has never showed any sign of getting moldy, or breaking down. ^..^

  5. Do you ever sell just the Devils Club root?

  6. Wish I had some for my arthritis pain


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