A SE Alaskan Plant to Admire but Avoid

Devil's Club PlantSo you have anchored in a beautiful bay or tied up to a State of Alaska float and want to take a short hike up into the woods. One of the plants you most likely encounter is devil’s club, Oplopanax horridus. It is a common deciduous understory shrub occurring in moist, but well-drained, forested ecosystems throughout coastal Alaska. It is very prevalent along well used trails, like to the bear observation towers at Pack and Anan Creeks, the Kalinin Bay beach trail or along the shore of Taku Harbor. But whatever the circumstances, don’t reach out and grab it as a handhold to avoid a fall. You will experience stabs of pain in your hand and spend days trying to removed its prickly spines. Growing up in SE Alaska, I learned to bushwack heavily forested slopes by following faint game trails when deer hunting. While a deer can slip right through a patch of devil’s club, not so with my six-foot frame covered in rubber boots and heavy rain gear and carrying a rifle. After my first painful encounter, I quickly learned how to avoid this plant.

Devil’s club, Oplopanax horridus, is a member of the family Araliaceae (which also contains the ginsengs) and is related to a number of widely known medicinals including Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer) and American ginseng (P. quinquefolius L). The plant is of great importance  in traditional and contemporary Native American/First Nations cultures such as the Tlingit, Haida, Salish, and Tsimshian. It has been employed for a wide variety of uses, ranging from fishhooks and lures, to use of its charcoal for a base for tattoo ink. As a traditional medicine it had applications including treatment of sores, purification and cleansing, combating witchcraft and attainment of supernatural powers.

If you decide to that hike, leave the flip-flops on the aft deck and wear good jeans and a long sleeve shirt or raingear. Admire the plant, and if it is in bloom, take a deep breath of its intoxicating ginseng scent.

About Fred Cooper

Alaska resident at the time of statehood and returns annually; professional civil engineer and for 35 years owner of an engineering company; skipper of the Nordic Quest; author, avid fisherman and world traveler. Lives with his wife and their water-loving standard schnauzer in Portland, Oregon.
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